Skip to content



Michelangelo Merisi, Portrait of Fra Antonio Martelli, 1608, 47″ x 36.5″, Oil on Canvas, Palazzo Pitti.

Nec Spec Nec Metu

Grand, isn’t he? Well, maybe not so much the man depicted, I mean, he looks like a slyly dangerous douche to me. But the vision of the depicted, the visual opulence in this painting, is stunning. Look at the way the light illuminates certain defining moments in his pose – the hand at the belt delicately holding the prayer beads, the other hand deftly adjusts the sword so it can be easily drawn. His forehead is lined and his eyes are set deep. His gaze is weary. He’s a man of experience. His right ear has been made specific, perfectly realized, cocked and listening to everything in this particular room. The silk collar and cross on his chest fill out the man’s volume. It makes him solid and thick in all of that blackness. Fra Martelli emerges into our gaze, fills the space before us. He’s an emissary of god, a judge of men, a protector of the church, a Knight of St. John, and if need be, an executioner. This man is ready to act both in thought and deed against those who trespass against Holy Mother Church and the Papacy – heretics, blasphemers, sodomites and murderers.

Unfortunately, the artist who painted this picture, Caravaggio, had been charged with all of these crimes. And he was on the run from a well armed band of bounty hunters looking to take his head. Yes, Michele was a wanted criminal, but he also happened to be the Roman art world’s hottest painter of the moment, a controversial avant-gardist and the premier imagist of the new century. Collectors, punters and the church had been lining up to be involved with this art star. There were lists for chapel commissions, decadent parties, FU money, and glamorous success. All had been going really well for our hero right until the moment he managed to murder a crappy swordsman named Tomassoni in a back alley fight over a bad bet, a “bad” woman and some bad blood. That violent encounter fueled by misguided machismo changed everything in an instant, and it sent Michele on a sweaty runner to the South of Italy.

Lucky for him there were powerful Roman wheelers and dealers working on his behalf, and by using their connections and back-alley associates they had managed to cobble together a trade that would lead Michele to redemption in Malta. For the Knights Caravaggio would become their court painter and make them famous. He would also swear allegiance to the Cross and the Brotherhood. In return he would be titled as a Knight and find protection from the assassins and bounty hunters that were hot on his tail. As a bonus if he could keep himself together and out of trouble a Papal pardon would be given for his capital crimes back in Rome. And with that pardon “Fra Michele Merisi” could find his way back to the Piazza Navona and back to the life of privilege that he had thrown away so carelessly. His sins would be forgiven. In Italy this kind of deal making is called “l’arte di arrangiarsi”. Arrangiarsi is all about stretching the rules and finding a solution to a difficult problem – find a clever way to get around a tight situation – and in this case the “deal” would get the troubled genius back to work for the Church. But this particular deal hung on one really shaky proviso – that our troubled hero would tow the line, keep it in his pants and show a bit of contrition.

If you really look at this stunning portrait you can see that somehow Michele seemed to understand that things for him would never be so straightforward. Especially not for an artist, a painter, a sinner, who crossed serious men like Fra Martelli without thought. Of course it wasn’t long before his deal with the devil, the “arrangiarsi”, went south. In short order our hero was beaten, jailed and defrocked by the very “gentlemen” he had just begun to paint and immortalize. We don’t really know what happened in Malta, but considering Michele’s past transgressions, there could have been no other ending to his stay with the Knights. Somehow he managed an improbable escape from the prison pit at Sant Angelo (probably with a bit of help) and went “on the lam” – first through Sicily, then back to Naples, leaning on “friends” and picking up quick commissions all along the way. It looks like he may have been heading back to Roma to renegotiate his pardon – maybe his contacts had managed to cobble together another lousy deal – or maybe they were just leading him on. Conspiracy theories are profligate when it comes to Caravaggio. Meanwhile, determined heavily armed killers were once again hot on his tail. And so this is how the bitter end game played out for Michele – paint quickly for cash, try to avoid the bounty hunters (he wasn’t always successful), and move on, fast. Until he died of fever and madness, stumbling along the shores of Porto Ercole, chasing after his absconded boat. Well, that’s the official version of how he met his end…

Strange, though. The last few “lost” paintings, the ones Michele had “left” aboard his hired felucca before his retched death, managed to wind up in the “right” Roman collections. Arrangiarsi indeed.


Like so many places in Italy the city of Firenze is a living museum. Millions of us pony up every year to indulge in the beauties of the past. We marvel at how many of the works in their galleries and churches can still move us, enthrall us, fill us with vision and emotion even though these works were made hundreds of years ago. It’s comforting to know that there is a human constant, a human connection in our visions. But because we are just tourists we march through these things like we are on treadmills – moving from one sight to another, pushed along by the crowd behind, all of us wanting to see the same things, experience the same things in our own publicly produced private moments. But these things that we encounter are never quite what they once were as marvelous as they might seem. They are the past, they are memories. We tend to fetishize these moments, polish them for consumption, mark our tourist’s moments through them. We’ll take photos of the famous things, meander to the next and the next, leaving them on the walls where we found them. We prefer to see these things through the postcards in our pockets, the catalogues in our bags or the moments captured in our photo streams. But strangely, once in a great while, some thing that we’ve seen sees us as well and follows us back to our hotel rooms. The thing  becomes… present. And before we know it this present thing has slyly insinuated itself into our lives. On that day Fra Martelli came along with me and has been with me ever since, a bothersome last “gift” from Michele.

2 am and all I can think about is that vision can be a supremely dangerous thing. I wrote in my sketch diary – “It’s not the things we know we’ve seen or the things we expect to see that takes us. It’s the things that surprise us, the things we think we do not want to see, things we see that we can not or will not understand, the visions that persist, that are and will remain for each of us, unrelenting.” And I have come to understand that this is life making itself known in no uncertain terms through vision. These bothersome things are raw, unfocused and they exist without our permission or our influence, without our taste or our preferences. They see straight through us. They can not be conjured up in series or made through technologies or experienced without consequences. They do not maintain their distance. They are dangerous, and these visions change how we see the world.

Today there are expeditions looking for the bones of Caravaggio amongst the catacombs of Porto Ercole. They conduct tests in labs looking for DNA markers and genetic sequences hoping to prove that his remains rest among the other poor souls dumped into these nameless pits. And by doing so they may resurrect him, make him one of us once again. We painters are also doing these same kinds of things, conducting the same kinds of tests, looking for markers and sequences among the bones of a dead Modernism. We search through the artifacts of abstraction – the flat surfaces, the processes and manufactured products, the advertising landscapes and image flows. We look on “pictures of nothing” hoping to find that something may indeed exist there, and we are happy when we find ourselves reflected back on those surfaces. But for me Fra Martelli continues to stand in that dark room, in our room, counting his beads, waiting for us to decide – will we see our fate and change or will we continue on our path as our lost Michele had done so long ago?


Jerry gets it right with his review of the GUSTON EXHIBITION at Hauser & Wirth!

The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict.Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.

Guston confronted aesthetic concerns of the New York School, questioning modes of image making and what it means to paint abstractly.

Michael Zahn @ Pablo’s Birthday

My good friend Michael Zahn has a wall piece installed at Pablo’s Birthday.

The show is entitled “Informed Painting.”

On View Pablo’s Birthday | 57 Orchard Street
Curated by Arne Zimmermann


Market in the Studio – Continued…

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 9.30.04 AM
What I’ve been trying to open up in these FB posts is a deeper consideration, understanding and conversation about what Art is and has become in the face of our Economic Modernist Art World. What does it mean to be an artist at this time in the face of this new reality? Why has there NOT been a backlash of art, aesthetics, theoretics, providing a different viewpoint, a different reality of what our art world should be? Why have we settled for the Neo-Liberal model of unregulated markets, unfettered investments and oligarch manipulations of the very things that should have meaning to US, to artists? We can not go back to an imagined reality of an avant-garde, but we can ask questions of ourselves, about how we fit into this time, about what kind of work we make, what kind of visions we create, and who, ultimately, those visions are for.
I’ve done these posts on FB purposely, because it is their database, and I was hoping to make a sly point. My database for Henri floats free on the net. I have my own url. It is part of the larger “lost” web and to whatever degree possible it makes Henri individuated. Facebook, however, is a genius business idea. It was created as a web within the web, a club so to speak, and somehow they’ve managed to convinced us that their surveillance and collection of our data, our thoughts, images and ideas, is to our benefit. FB is a fill-in-the-blank, click your preferences, and upload your data kind of place. Their programs control and shape your creativity, and in some cases if you cross a line that they deem uncrossable, they’ll throw you off for a period of time. As I write this FB stock price is $112.26, its market cap is almost $320 billion – all because we participate in this “beneficent” umbrella – we create its value. And in that Facebook has become like a new kind of Vatican, a place where believers, users, obtain their moral code and provide “value” to the cause in the form of personal information – what they like, how they shop, what they think, etc. The strange thing is we can do these very same things on our own web pages. We can communicate, share photos, stories, whatever you like, and we can do it for ourselves. We can do it without FB’s Electronic Vatican pocketing our information. Why are we so willing to believe that it’s in our benefit to give over our lives over for someone else’s profit and someone else’s control?
I make this point, ask these questions, because we’ve adopted these same policies of contrition to the market in the art world, and it’s changed how we make art, how we live our lives in the studio and how we consider ourselves in the Economic Modernist Art World. As Dave Hickey has said when speaking of money’s effect on artists and the art world, “care is control.”
“If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on. That nasty question which never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago – What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? and an art that is completely monetarized in the way that it is these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes – The Mona Lisa Curse

Market in the Studio

Mario Naves sent around a really wonderful article on the economic changes to the art world. There’s also an interesting interview with Mario about those changes. I highly recommend it. But I thought I’d try something a bit more informal and different. I’ve posted this over at the Henri Facebook site. You’ll find some thoughts about the market and a few article links that show a small bit of the history of the economic art world.

The Link to the full post on Henri FB is below and do feel free to comment!


Ghostzapper – Paul Corio’s Show of New Work

My good friend, Paul Corio, is having a show of his new work at McKenzie Fine Art – the opening is on February 7, 2016 from 6 to 8 pm. Best of luck to Paul and hope to see you all there!

Mckenzie Fine Art is located at 55 Orchard St. between Grand St. and Hester St. on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  The show runs through March 13, and the gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 am to 6 pm, and Sunday from noon to 6 pm.

Photo by Adrienne Jimenez from Paul’s tumblr

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.


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.



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



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…)


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.




“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.

Untethered – The NOT Real


This, my friends, is not a pipe. We learned this lesson about language, images and thinking when we were issued Michel’s famous book during our early art education. And this book leads us down a thorny post-structural path to late 20th Century certitude about knowledge, language and imagery. But what if when we had reached the end of the Foucauldian labyrinth we found that this image of a pipe is just exactly what the sign says it is not – a pipe. What if the dead-on certainty of the not-pipe had somehow been reversed, and we discovered that this was indeed  a pipe? Back in the early Postmodern days this particular deliciously ironic vision of language and imagery was like food for the gods. Questions about the constitution of reality, language and imagery were shotgunned at the entire history of meaning and reality. What is real, what isn’t? What is language, what is image? Where and how do we create meaning? Perhaps the obvious uselessness of Rene’s pipe was in itself letting us know that everything we know was unreal, or more to the point, surreal. But time has moved on, and reality, or non-reality, has slipped somewhere else. We exist in a Post everything world – Post Berlin Wall, Post Cold War, Post Internet, Post History, Post Nine Eleven, Post 20th Century, Post Rene’s Not-Pipe. The “real” has become something else entirely.



The campaign, launched to coincide with the start of Advertising Week, includes billboards that tout “This ad is real,” rail posters that say, “You are consuming an advertisement. You are real,” and signs on telephone kiosks that ask, “Media planners, do you have a reality problem?” In total, the campaign will feature more than 1,600 outdoor displays.



On the way to the day job I came across a huge screen on one of the buildings on 42nd street that said, “This Digital Ad is Real.” Normally, I would just ignore such thing, but there was a lot working on my mind that morning. I stopped and looked at the sign until it slipped away and became another advertisement. But that image stuck with me. First, the simplicity of the message immediately brought up Barbara Kruger’s once-subversive use of advertising, imagery and text. But unlike Kruger’s work this electronic image IS a “real” advertisement – not something made as Art for a gallery. In other words this was “privatized Art” created for business rather than for the art community. And it was that connection between business and reality that initially confounded me. The digital image is commenting on its own existence, on its own being – averring emphatically that IT is Real. Second, the black and red and white brought to mind that a great deal of the Modern Century was defined using those very three colors – Abstractions, Hate Groups, Totalitarian Regimes, World War II, Sports Teams – all of those “things” have defined a reality with Red, White and Black. Some of them were not very pleasant realities, but they were realities that impacted the world, nonetheless. This Times Square sign was knowingly using these particular colors to create a link to a reality, to claim its own reality through that chromatic history – which is a very “Post” thing to do.

The problem, of course, is that our Internet lives have very much become our “real lives.” Things you say online can, and do, haunt your offline world. Last month, evidence of a hack at the Office of Personnel Management in the highest echelon of our government exposed the sensitive personal information of 18 million people. On a smaller scale, I once Googled a recommended handyman and found he had made a string of vile comments on YouTube videos. He could be the greatest handyman in the world, but I certainly didn’t hire him. The book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson collects examples of people who were fired or had their public image destroyed because of things they said online. “Dear Ashley Madison Users: The Internet is Real Life,” Karol Markowitz.


So what is the actual “reality” that this image, this text is asserting? Can text be real? As real as say, my left arm, or the other humans carrying their venti lattes, grousing on their way to work? On the elevator ride up, crowded into the back of that sleek silver box, I watched my colleagues staring at their phones, their faces lit up by the blue-white light of information technology. On the front wall of the elevator, there was yet another screen flashing news, business info, and advertising. The company that provides this service is called Captivate – a clever corporate double entendre. Enclosed in this moving box we are captives, and our vision is naturally drawn to the Flashing screen of light – to be entertained, informed and sold – we are captivated by the light, by the information, by the imagery, like residents in Plato’s Cave. But what’s actually happening is that we are traveling in a camera obscura filled with lenses and screens manifesting images of reality. The light is no longer outside of the box, sunlight coming through a pin hole. It’s broadcasted straight into it. I reach my floor and make my way in through the glass doors to my cubicle, a screen and keyboard await – yet more boxes and screens, lenses and mirrors.



The Open Office Plan F/K/A The Bullpen


This particular department was designed as a clever experiment using the now “hip” again “open floor concept,” something Corporate Office Planners are very hot about at the moment. The claim is it’s an idea whose time has come (again!) This “new” socialization is based on the corporatized idea of the end of privacy, the new “Real.” But this new “reality” has been around for a long time. In the late 19th Century these vast rooms were called bullpens – and they were built to save money and space, to herd vast groups of “low skilled,” very replaceable office workers into a common area to keep tabs on them. In the end this kind of planning, this reality, is about economic processes – pure and simple. So in order to make this precedent planning “New” we have added the rhetoric, the text, that redefines this reality. There are no walls, no offices, just a vast common area to promote conversation and interaction, the sharing of ideas and solutions to common problems. The open office plan has been redefined as the Town Square. But this open room is weirdly quiet, because everyone is staring at their computer screens, sending messages and emails, communicating through their electronic extensions. There is very little actual conversation among the workers because our reality is that this open room is an endpoint in a flow chart. This room is a datasource, a hub for the parsing of information outward into the electronic world. The Reality of this place, then, is in the machines, through the screens and lenses, within the world of folded spaces and optical enlightenment. There are many versions of this Real existence in this city, and I’m sure, in many cities like it. And after seeing the digital ad claim that it’s Real it occurred to me that Rene’s not-pipe, its Treachery as an image, is a quaint old fashioned idea. In this world of programs and screens there is no longer any certainty about a not-pipe. Rene’s image can’t even begin to address what we see, understand or experience in this culture where the screen determines the reality. Because in this world, the world where millions of us work and exist for most of our day, Rene’s Not-Pipe IS Real.


Sticks and Stones…

“Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” David Shields, Reality Hunger.


Rauschenberg’s Factum 1 & 2 were made in part to show that AbEx rhetoric about process and purity were just another language, another “reality” of art history, something that we as participants in a culture could learn. If two paintings are made using the same materials, the same compositions in the same “style” of painting how then could anything about spontaneity, process, “action painting,” be more than a common language to be learned and processed? How does that have extra-Real appeal?!! Were any great truths about life, about painting, being unveiled? After the one-offs by Pollock or Rothko or Newman were there any other transcendent or “sublime” images being made? Were any ideas or expectations about Abstract Expressionism being challenged by those who used it? Soon after the Factum paintings were made the idea of reproduction, serial production and manufacture, began to become more common in the work of artists. Clem’s Neo-Modern processes of purity, nearly overnight, re-focused on the impure cultural processes of reproduction. Abstraction was not in what one painted, but in how one presented what one painted. The Postmodern age had begun. This change to Modern reality in the mid 50s was done nearly exclusively using the camera and lens, accomplished because our lens culture had taught us how to see, understand and “process” the world. Most every painter working today use lenses and the reality they create – either in the understanding of the history of Art, directly in the making of their work or indirectly in the presentation of their work.



Look Harder?

We are swamped in abstractions, mediations. Everything we know and experience as a culture is coming more and more from the screen set right in front of you. We live a mediated experience of text and image, a very particular way of using sound and sight. We carry our screens everywhere using them to capture everything around us, quantifying every encounter and making each of those encounters into a programmable interaction. As abstract painters this is problematic. Mainly because there is no longer any division between abstraction as a form and everything else. Everything is pixelated into reality. Sure there are a number of abstractionists who hang on to the idea that purity is still in the processes, but once the painting has been photographed, and it will be photographed, it’s no longer any different than any other picture. The image exists as a product of the programming. The problem then is how to make this “real” image appealing for the punters. And increasingly, photos of abstraction, of abstract painting, are not. These images of paintings require text to determine their reality. Online abstraction, whether it’s a portrait of a brush stroke, a geometric pattern, a colorful monochrome, a torrent of sludgy paint, a flat brushy landscape or a push-pull chromatic show is seen in exactly the same way, in the same formats, in the same cultural space as Kim Kardashian’s selfies. And so painting requires text to separate it from Reality, to create the Modern distance required to remain a Not-Pipe. That is why so many artists have become Presenters, Spokespersons, Curators and blog aficionados, Tweeting and Facebooking and conducting PR campaigns for differentiation, explication. What the good abstractionist does is create Con-text rather than new visual ideas.

There are thousands and thousands of abstractionist painters working today. Most of whom seem to believe that there is still something called Abstraction, something defined separately as Abstraction. We still try to make distinctions presenting our processes or expounding on the medium’s purity as something separate and pure, as if we’re living in the 1950s. But this thinking is pre-historic – based on the nostalgic yearning for a time when there was little or no history of abstraction. There are sites all over the internet offering for sale kitsch abstraction for $29.99 or less. There are hotels and offices filled with the stuff all across the United States. There is an army of professional painters that know how to make an abstract painting. Walking down the hallways of the day job I can see work from nearly every contemporary artist known today on the walls of conference rooms, client reception areas, open office spaces and employee lounges. Very few who come into contact with these things know what this work is or why it was made or who these artists are. This work serves as something that interior designers like to call Wall Decor. For them Abstraction is a perfect kind of decoration. It can be beautiful. It can have texture and color. It can provide delight for the eye on a large white wall. It doesn’t raise any thorny personal issues that will have to be mediated in HR. And isn’t that what Clem was all about? This is how money and reputations are made, this is how abstraction has been fed into the world, this is a career in Art. But mostly, this is the world where a digital ad can state that it IS Real.

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real.
“Simulacra and Simulation” Jean Baudrillard