This high, no higher…

Michael Zahn, Ladder, 2017

“As a book is adapted for the screen, so the screen adapts the world. Reflecting this, Zahn’s practice situates itself within a new genre where quotation has succeeded appropriation, and abstraction becomes mimesis. In Zahn’s universe, images are largely elided in favor of form and color, and this exhibition is primarily comprised of monumental to medium-format monochrome paintings in hues reminiscent of Post-It notes, mobile phones, Mac desktops, and peripheral devices.” MIKE ZAHN Adapter_Adapted &etc. September 26 – November 4, 2017 Press Release

This far. This high. This much. No further. No higher. No more.

This is the Ladder. This is the structure every Artist must climb in order to have a part in our Modernist economic culture. It allows us to do what we do in order to “exist” as “artists.” But the truth is that the Ladder doesn’t really promise much – just a show or two, a sale, a magazine article, an art fair. And what this adds up to is a life of professional calculation climbing those same three steps over and over again. You punch the clock, do your time, apply for the position. It’s the fucking ladder and if you want to be a part of the art world – you do what it takes. Get your ladder and start…

Michael’s ladder is handmade from scraps. It’s not something that he ordered, bought or paid for. It’s not got the qualities of some Home Depot, collapsable, portable, machine made tool. It doesn’t come with a swifty logo or an upgraded color scheme. No. Michael saw exactly how the thing worked and built it himself from scratch, from scraps and leftovers. And there on the top step, once you’ve reached the end of your climb, you look down to see the bars and know that you can move no higher. You have been incarcerated using your three step plan.

This Ladder won’t break down in pieces. It won’t fold away nicely into the rows of shelves of your collection. It won’t look “good” in a perfectly designed apartment. This Ladder might suggest the way in and up, but for Michael this isn’t real. In order for the life of an artist to be real it must be experienced for its own reasons, from its own sources. The real Ladder must not be Art. It must be unsellable, unwanted and therefore without price – priceless. It has to be this thing, my thing, the only thing that’s real in this gallery, in this studio, in my mind. My. Fucking. Ladder. And it’s the most perfect thing I have seen in a long time.

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Joan Didion

Golden Balls

Gustave Klimt “Danae” 1907

“Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.” – Clement Greenberg Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939.

One of the reasons today’s Modernist Art has an economic theoretical foundation can be found in Clem’s 1939 essay AG&K. In it Clem makes the famous “umbilical chord of gold” statement which linked avant-garde art to the largess and interests of the equestrian classes. Clem made the case that these HNWIs were the reason for an avant-garde’s continued health and existence. Advanced artists need money just like another working stiff, but unfortunately there is a small cohort that might be interested in this kind of art and artists. Only an educated, leisured, monied individual would be able to indulge and invest in these difficult cultural objects. Clem was bemoaning the fact that this cohort of well-healed investors was disappearing (it was 1939, afterall), and so his fear was that the avant-garde would follow suit. 80 years later we are in the exact opposite situation, thanks in no small part to Clem’s efforts to make a viable art market back in the 1950s. We live in a world filled with billionaires competing among themselves to shower gold over certain art galleries, museums, auction houses and artists.

Money is so profoundly involved with the way that we produce, manufacture and experience art works that we can no longer separate the economics from our appreciation, understanding or engagement of any cultural product. Today most of the “major” work we see is haunted not by art history or an anxiety of influence but by its economic history and collecting provenance. From conception to showing, from selling to trading and auction everything we see or experience translates into economic gains and losses and the market mechanics that create that value. What we see on the face of an art object is now always a banality. That is what Modern process has become, and that is the zeitgeist driving our Modernist Era.

The other part of Clem’s AG&K, which we don’t discuss very much any longer was his definition of Modern Art’s former nemesis Kitsch. But this no longer matters. For Modernist Art aesthetics, kitsch or critique, ie. content are no longer problems to enjoyment. The market allows for any kind of Art. What makes it fine art or high art or avant-garde art is the promotion, the collection and the market provenance established by the right kind of money and the right kind of collector. The Art Market protects and strengthens its investments by defining value through money. They covet and protect the work they collect and trade, and so Art is based on the continuity of the established market economy not on the ideas involved in the Art itself. Art is simply a commodity, a widget, a McGuffin, that drives the Market Plot. In other words Art pretends to demand nothing so that it can continue to exist for Money.

If you really want to see how money and art exist in our contemporary art world I highly recommend KIRAC’s wonderful documentary on the irrepressible Stefan Simchowitz. The scene where the filmmakers and Mr. S try to make a deal for a conceptual artist’s work is a classic. Link to the you tube video is here – Kirac 8 The Art of Stefan Simchowitz. This particular sequence begins about 44 minutes in, but the entire thing is truly fascinating. By the end of the documentary you’ll have a better understanding of the last 20 years of art making and the market world that creates it.

The Magnificent Corpulent Modernist Era

Ashley Bickerton – Fat Body on Vespa – 2015
“There are a lot of people now globally that are happy just to make art and not keep up with arguments about what kind of art. And the form most favoured is expressionism.” Matthew Collings twitter.


There are days when I’ll check instagram or twitter see once again all the same Modernist tropes working, doing nothing more than what they’re supposed to do. And I suppose there is some satisfaction in that. It’s nice to know that this kind of work is as accepted and expected as any other – like rock n roll, comic book movies and Milan Fashion Week. Abstraction is no longer a “foreign” art form or an unacceptable theoretical experience. In fact abstraction in all its forms has become the preferred decorative art of our day.  It’s the kind of art you’ll find displayed in corporate board rooms, in Starchitects’ lobbies, in the background of furniture store displays, and all over instagram. There are many names for it – provisional painting, zombie formalism, Neo this or Post that. It amounts to a lot of art being made that looks a lot like art that’s familiar, comforting and market approved.

It’s the Modern era’s economic imperative that has brought Art to this point. To see how NeoLiberal Capitalism works within Art we have only to follow the narratives spun for Damien Hirst’s new shows of dot/spot/splot paintings.

I’ve always loved Bonnard and his colour, i went to see a show at the Pompidou in Paris of de Kooning and Bonnard when I was a student and both artists blew me away. These paintings I’ve made, which i’m calling the Veil paintings, will be shown at Gagosian LA in March.
They’re like big abstract Bonnard paintings, I’ve been playing with the scale and the big ones feel perfect. how can you not love colour? Sunlight on flowers, fuck everything else. Damien Hirst Instagram


The paintings themselves are pure Ab Ex process which has been “mechanized” much as he did with the spin paintings or the spot paintings. And in this sense he follows Gerhard Richter’s process driven Post-historical mechanics; process leads to production. Damien’s understanding and use of art history, the documentary displays of his production and the marketing of a narrative spectacle define how we are to understand, appreciate and collect this kind of economic art. What Damien does is to provide comfort, familiarity, a map of understanding, and a context aimed at creating and upholding the works’ market value. Damien isn’t going against history, theoretics or technique, rather he’s updating and upgrading what’s always already available, what we’ve learned and what we’ve inherited. This has become a formula for success used over and over again by artists in the new Modernist Art World.

Right now on Netflix is another fascinating documentary on the Art World. Entitled “Blurred Lines,” the documentary critiques and lauds the market imperative in our Modernist Art World. What’s interesting is watching the artists and critics being interviewed. It’s apparent that artists are more than willing participants in this system – using it, benefitting from it and creating a specific kind of work to be sold through it. As Matthew says in his twitter post above –  there is no way to argue with this kind of art. That’s because it’s not made for “artists” in the historic sense. It is made for long tail markets and niche brand consumers.

Compelling Scenarios Part 4

“When Gorvy landed in Hong Kong 16 hours later, he discovered text messages from three clients asking if the painting was available. One immediately made an offer for the 1982 canvas showing Robinson as a squat, scowling figure. The deal was completed two days later for about $24 million — more than triple the $7.3 million the work fetched at auction in 2007… In this marketplace everyone is looking for an edge,” Gorvy, who resigned from Christie’s this month, said in a telephone interview. “It just shows you the power of social media and the transformation of how people are buying.” Want to Sell a $24 Million Painting Fast?, Katya Kazinka, Bloomberg, December 21, 2016.


Jackie Robinson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, mixed media on canvas, 1982.

In every belief system control is the main focus for the elites who run it – control of politics, control of economics, control of societies. Basquiat certainly didn’t believe in those systems. Just take a moment to really look at his art. But the allure of money and success calls to us all. The life lesson quickly learned is that once in it’s almost always impossible to find a way to out. Money and fame compromise even the strongest rebel. We know that Jean never really was comfortable with his renown. He was a star right out of the box, making art and money, partying, hanging with Warhol, it looked glamorous. To the suspicious elites JMB was capricious, unpredictable and didn’t follow rules – not the artists’ rules, not the gallerists’ rules and certainly not the collectors’ rules. He was disloyal. He was wild. He made too much work for the market. There was gossip about his mental health. There was nastiness about his intentions. There was blatant racism. There were drugs. He paid for his success and individuality in ways a lot of successful artists didn’t. In Rene’s essay one of the most devastating pronouncements about the new Modernist system is this, “We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.” And when you put it this way you might see why JMB might have a problem with this system of control.

Not long after Jean’s early demise the controlling elites rewrote his biography and reframed his achievements. Collectors, foundations, auction houses, and the secondary market needed a more sympathetic character to make the work more desirable and therefore more salable among the collecting classes. JMB went from drug addicted charlatan to misunderstood genius, a new era Van Gogh with every knock of the auction hammer. It also helped that Jean was a close friend and collaborator with Andy Warhol – already a market darling and deeply collected by the same people who also collected Basquiat. Every systemic connection was used, every marketing ploy employed. This publicity tour was designed to institutionalize and monetize the work already owned and legitimize the cache of work yet to be sold. It is how the Modernist system profits from nearly anything it apporpriates. It’s how reputations become anodized and art works are legitimized enough to be bought and sold for millions of dollars from jpegs and text messages.

“Perhaps because I have seen graffiti, then seen something else, thrown myself on the dance floor, then gone on to dance another way, I say that the reason for abandoning so much during the ’70s was that each fad became an institution. What we can finally see from the ’70s buried among the revivals and now surfacing (Tagging, Breaking, Rapping) was at least one academy without program. Distinct to the ’70s, graffiti, in particular, was the institutionalization of the idiosyncratic that has led to the need for individuation within this anonymous vernacular. This is why the individuals (Crazy Legs) must distinguish themselves. Artists have a responsibility to their work to raise it above the vernacular.” Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, December 1981.


JM Basquiat, False Teeth, 1984, Mixed Media on paper.

Rene Ricard used a term in the above quote that I’ve come to really appreciate, “the vernacular.” I appreciate it because I don’t know what that is any longer. In those days it was fairly easy to locate and understand. It had to do with the quotidian life. In the Modernist era we do not define or question “the vernacular.” We tweet it. We publicize it. We pay homage to it. We buy it and sell it. It underwrites our comfort and complicity. It’s monetized and marketed. And because of its ubiquity it defines every interaction. It levels everything to common experience, especially difference. Our vernacular is continuously legitimized and normalized through our media, our entertainments and our markets. It is so pervasive that we do not question our acceptance of it or its power in our lives. In other words – there is no room, no time, no ability to critique our Modernist Era. We are not fast enough to keep up, to catch up, to get ahead of the speed of the markets, the onslaught of our conformity or the constant and endless replication of the present. We disregard death. We are surprised by aging. We are inoculated to change. The vernacular is always already the same.

JMB was there at the cusp of this Market change, and he passed away just before it took off. Time was speeding up during his brief time in this system. He was one of the first global artists and was one of the first artists after Warhol to amass a huge following in Europe and Asia. The pressure to produce for these markets must have been tremendous, especially on someone who worked from the inside, from emotion. And that’s the really hard part. How does one work from one’s emotions without one’s art becoming acting? How does one remain authentic? It’s not an easy thing, and any artist that works from their emotions knows this. To go from sleeping in the park to flying in first class changes one’s view, not only of the world, but of the world within as well.

I asked Jean-Michel where he got the crown. “Everybody does crowns.” Yet the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel’s repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it’s his. He won that crown. In one painting there is even a © copyright sign with a date in impossible Roman numerals directly under the crown. We can now say he copyrighted the crown. He is also addicted to the copyright sign itself. Double copyright. So the invention isn’t important; it’s the patent, the transition from the public sector into the private, the monopolizing personal usurpation of a public utility, of prior art; no matter who owned it before, you own it now. Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, December 1981.

We forget more and more every day as the churn of information, the seas of images, and the regurgitation of selected headlines are flashed through our consciousness in seconds – over and over and over again. It’s neither memory nor understanding, but instead it’s control. Our interior lives get pushed aside. There is no past and no future, no history or consequence. There is only the ever present now. So instead of “isms” we have trends, instead of eras or movements, we have seasons, and instead of ideas, we have tweets. The Artist must become as fast as this business cycle. And to do this an artist must become a business person, a globalist, a CEO, a director or an architect who subcontracts the production of works of Art for the texting collectors. The artist must be freed of the history of studio, freed from the confines of Art history. The greatest complement you can give someone in our Modernist business is to call them an entrepreneur. And to earn that title means that one has achieved a copyrighted brand, a patented product, something that benefits the system, something that upholds the vernacular.

I don’t know if this really happened, but it is one of the best scenes in Julian’s movie about JMB. Jean (played by Jeffrey Wright) comes over to visit because he is distraught over how the art world sees him. Julian (played by Gary Oldman) gives a speech about not being accepted in your own time. No one will understand Jean’s work until, etc. – cliche, cliche, cliche. This is done over dinner while sharing spaghetti in Julian’s cavernous palatial home/studio. Later, Jean does a drawing for Julian’s young daughter (the next generation that will understand, I suppose) then leaves through the stairwell. Julian follows, opens the door, and sees Jean pissing on his stairwell floor. It’s a great moment because it brings to mind Pollock’s fireplace antics when he pissed on the warming hearth of his collector’s / benefactor’s home. Only here Jean is pissing in the stairway that takes one to the lifestyle of the successful artist ©. SAMO.

Douche Repast

Night Watch Room, Rijksmuseum, 2017

Amsterdam. Hungover and art touring. As you can see this Elephant grave yard has a Rembrandt at the back. I feel like hell, but I’m sure that’s just the well earned result of the night before. I know this, because I looked in the mirror this morning to see a blurry vision of my parents looking back at me – thoroughly dispiriting – as is this Old Master viewing demographic. Truthfully, I just wanted to spend a little bit of quality time in front of this painting, but I find that it’s impossible. The entire viewing process has been programmed to move us along quickly. This painting is, after all, the big star of the museum. Everyone with a ticket is entitled to have a look, so to keep the line moving they’ve made the viewing process as unpleasant as possible. The Museum Guards flanking the painting keep the crowds moving by moving themselves, back and forth in front of the painting as if they are part of the composition – and indeed – they are. The benches are placed to the sides which gives you an angled low shot of a lot of lumpy backsides clad in all types of uncomfortable slacks. People take their places along the low barrier to take pictures on iPhones or other electronic devices, thus blocking any sustained viewing. Those frontline photographers then step back to have a gander at the results. If it’s not good they’ll move back into position to shoot another. And so it goes. It’s all been designed to keep the punters on the moving walkway which inevitably leads to the gift shoppe exit.

Kren’s was right – museums are all about the Brand – about the quality product. The art world restructured itself in the early 90s after the crash and Krens led that charge. There was a corporate takeover of the bankrupt art retail systems which turned the centuries-long history of considered collecting into a Neoliberal traders market – from auction house to museum boardrooms right through to artists studios. The Rijks is just trying to profit from the system like any other art gallery, and in this case its money maker is the Night Watch. My Mom used to say, “A cat may look at a king.” But that’s just not the game anymore. Cats don’t have a penny to their name and can’t afford the entry. Looking at “culturally significant Art” is considered a consumer privilege reserved for those who can afford a ticket. Cash makes us feel democratic, art for the people, that sort of thing, but to really see, you’ll still need the Willie Wonka Golden Ticket.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement in front of Dutch master Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ painting during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, March 24, 2014. Frank Augstein / AP

I’m willing to bet that Rembrandt never thought that his painting would be used as the backdrop for thousands of tourists’ shots uploaded into the cloud. Nor would he have expected the President of the United States to put Art in its place. “Obama remarked that the painting, which is housed in the recently-renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was the most impressive backdrop he had ever had for a statement to the press.” Backdrop for a statement. And truthfully that’s how the Neoliberal Art World likes its art – painting is there to enhance the corporation’s standing. No one would have predicted that this great painting (or any great painting for that matter) would one day not really matter as Art. In this age Art’s meaning, all Art for that matter, is tied to its ability to enhance the ROI, the Corporate Presence or the Branded Experience. Business, as they say, IS the best Art.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have my old school moments of belief and wonder – the gesticulating Donald Trump in the middle of the composition is a painterly tour de force, and the Billy Bush in the shimmering fabulous outfit next to him is a study in the flashy portrayal of wheezing pedantry. Rembrandt when he was on his game was great, and at another time I would have fought a bit harder to see this wonderful thing. But regardless of my regard these moments of painting wizardry are no longer the point of this Art experience. And neither are those floral patterned skinny jeans standing in my way.

Look, I understand that I was flowcharted out of this economic equation long ago, but does everything to do with Art have to be so blatantly consumerist? The answer of course is yes, yes it does. The thing that I began to understand, as I held my throbbing over-indulged noggin, is that the images on all those flashing screens are now the final arbiters of one’s visual experience. They are the product made, the manufactured images, the acceptance of this kind of Art, this way of Art. These images are the endgame of tourism, airlines, hoteliers, restauranteurs, museum CEOs, trinket shops, book publishers, online art discount stores, Apple Inc., e-commerce app makers, and museum traffic flow systems. That art tourist screenshot saved in my iPhoto file is nothing more than an expensive document, a bought and paid-for moment that locates, times, date stamps, collates and programs my complicity and readies my bohemian capitulation for a press release, a snapchat or a fucking tweet. Let’s call it “surveillance viewing” – not of the Art, which only exists now to facilitate an economic transaction, but of me, of us, the consumers of these paid experiences, the customers of Branded Art Products. And with the photo posted above I too have participated in this Art Economy.

You’re welcome.

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…

Compelling Scenarios Part 2

Flying Dutchman, 1961–62. Oil on canvas, 80.75 x 80.75 inches (205.11 x 205.11 cm). Collection of the Linda Pace Foundation.

Joan Mitchell entitled her painting “The Flying Dutchman”. The title comes from a story of a cursed ship that must forever sail the seas without landing. The ship, if encountered, brings doom to those who have seen it. For my money this narrative perfectly describes the teleology of the Modernist Era – Process and Market – no beginning, no end, no other history, the loop – from a to b and back again. The cycle of the painting’s production, the abstraction formed through the processes of that production, the “imitation of imitating”, the strokes, the drips, the smears and scrapes, the eternal self-referentiality of the subject matter, the Modernist Process has to be completed through us. As an artist, a viewer and a participant in this work, one must reprocess the processes, leave the work in flux, “unfinish” it in order to state that it can be finished. One is doomed. One must remain forever at sea, a Flying Dutchman. In the larger Market there are no theoretical changes. There’s just stylistic rapprochement, gentle upgrades, cross-platform programming, institutionalization – all done in the Modernist way by and for the Modernist Market so that artists can feed from its golden cord. And like Joan’s painting history is truncated and looped, falling back on itself, regurgitating itself, explicating itself. For the Modernists there aren’t other compelling scenarios, different outcomes, or new visions. We are Flying Dutchmen one and all…


On the world economic stage there have been a number of recent historic changes that have brought the art world, its studios and markets, to where it is now. 1991 was an auspicious year. The successful first Gulf War followed by the collapse of the USSR rearranged world power structures and the flow of capital. There were massive outflows of cash from Russia, China, India and South America as new oligarchies formed and banking systems collapsed. Additionally, over the last 25 years the UK, the EU and the US have become the beneficiaries and protectors of this global capital providing easy access to their markets, their finances, and their governments in order to partake in and benefit from what Clem called the golden umbilical cord. Process has been hard at work…


The first Armory Art Fair occurred in 1994 nearly 7 years after the ignominious collapse of the high flying stock markets of the 1980s. By 1989 the market value of most of the hot art collections had flattened like pancakes. A Domino Effect began with selling frenzies at the auction houses. The problem was – no one was buying. Collections and reputations for nearly all the major players – collectors, galleries and artists – were in ruins. Some would never recover. For the next 6 or 7 years the art market kind of flailed along – galleries closed, artists disappeared, production in the studios was nonexistent. No one really gave a damn and the art world changed. No one had any money so in stepped the installations, the performances, the video monologues, what used to be called PC Art, and lots and lots of photography. But these things didn’t really sell. They were ephemeral. The galleries determined that something had to be done.

The original Art Fair was intended as a shot in the arm for the anemic and moribund art market. In fact it was more a “happening” than it was a serious selling fest, though sales were made. That first fair at the Gramercy Hotel was a surprising success – part party, part spectacle and part trade show. Over the next few years the fair grew by leaps and bounds, and it seemed that everyone wanted to get in on the party. By 1999 the fair had professionalized, moved to the Armory on 69th Street, and took on the name Armory Show after the original from 1917. That was a stroke of marketing genius, because the fair linked itself to a watershed historic moment – the arrival of Modernism in America. The rest has been fait accompli. The Armory Fair jump started the art economy, brought new artists into the business, and most importantly, became a must-do-stop on the grand tour of the New World Order gypsy tribe of oligarchs and hedge funders looking to quietly clean their cash.

When Art and Money get together it’s a heady experience. We, and I mean all of us, gush in satisfaction or disbelief at the prices of Modernist Art. But what has been sexier for the owners of this new art has been the unregulated market itself. The trade, the bid, the power to push one’s aesthetic decisions into history – Wow! If you’ve ever been to one of these auctions you can practically smell it in the air – rapacious anxiety and sweaty pheromones. It’s a race for glory with the largest purse winning. (You don’t get this kind of rush in the real estate markets.) The galleries, however, are bit more earthy. No rules, no oversight, no pesky competitors – everything can be done in the backroom with a handshake. You can sweat the gallerists eye to eye, bargain for 20 percent less. This is Process, this is what Action Painting is for the Modernist. Clem’s formula applies right through the whole game, from studio to collector. Process and Market are one.


There have been other consequences as well. The biggest was the need for precedent, something on which all markets thrive. There must be product, proven product that investors want to use. So all eyes began to turn to the astounding glut of contemporary art that has piled up since the 1950s. And all of it, ALL OF IT, had to be made useful and viable as precedent. It had to be seen as a part of a continuity to shore up the market. Even if the work is not of the “top tier” and the artists unknown, they too could play a part. They would be the 2nd generations, the middle classes, the yeomen of academia. They would be the  proof that those who are feted, collected, and auctioned, those whose prices would reach astounding levels in the market, were actually worth the price. They would be the base of the pyramid.

The other problem was the Western Pre-Modern Canon, the Old Masters. How would we deal with that? So the market used the simplest solution it could and just ignored it. Old Master works did not come on the market that often anyway. They were difficult to resell, and they just weren’t that sexy anymore. Anything before 1900 doesn’t really matter to the quarter auction Market or the Processes that keep that market stable. So, for all intents and purposes Art History starts with the Americanization of Modernism and the beginning of the Modernist era. It worked! The institutions followed suit and have concentrated on the dissemination of Modernist ideology and doubled down on the Professionalization of Art Production. In other words, the Art Markets have institutionalized Clem’s theoretics. And Art History, the grand version of it, is for tourists and yokels. At the turn of the new century Neo-Liberal Modernist work began to churn through the Art Markets in a big way for larger and ever larger sums of money.

All of this money has had a big effect on how we make art and how we interpret it.

Part 3 to come…

Compelling Scenarios Part 1

The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking. There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way… Thus, the generation of a specific scenario may inhibit the emergence of other scenarios, particularly those that lead to different outcomes.

“Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability”, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232 (1973).




This era’s compelling art scenario, mixed up as it is with an overwrought economy, has created something that we call the Modernist Era. Our scenario is a metastasized belief system born of Modernism’s technical processes and Postmodernism’s market savvy. But let’s not confuse our Modernist era with the Modern one from which it came. Modernism was leftist in flavor, anti-bourgeois in taste and bohemian in attitude. The Modernist Era is centrist in flavor, pro-bourgeois in taste and corporate in attitude. This reversal in theoretical structure has a lot to do with the realities, expectations and tastes of American society.

When Modernism first came to the United States (in 1917 with the Armory Show) it brought a load of social baggage with it. The last thing Americans wanted, then or now for that matter, was leftist ideology or revolutionary fervor. In 1939 when Clem Greenberg wrote Avant-Garde and Kitsch there wasn’t an American Avant-garde. There wasn’t even an advanced form of painting or sculpture being produced in our studios. Basically, there was a bunch of European Modern knock-offs and a few nativist ne’er do wells showing at 291. So Clem took it upon himself to create an avant-garde by producing a compelling scenario.

This avant-garde wasn’t modeled on the revolutionary precepts and rebellious insurrections of European Modernism. It was modeled after the practical entrepreneurship of the American business world. AG&K concentrated on the functions of Modernism itself, how Modernism actually worked as art, leaving out any references to spiritual, societal or political issues. How one produces art would become the point of the Art, the self-referential subject of the work – How not What. If one could then infer other things from the outcomes of this Process, well then, that was just fine and dandy.

Clem determined that advanced art was to be freed of the world of common experience, or in layman’s terms the what. No direct imagery would cloud these pictures, and this ambiguity of subject matter would allow Greenberg to promote advanced art as business friendly, less objectively objectionable to the paying American elites. This new form of Advanced Art aspired to present itself as Fordist in its perfection of process. And in doing so it assured artists that style could become copyrightable, would ensure the rise of a singular branded form of art making. This difference, the emphasis on the how something is produced as opposed to what is produced, created something that the Modernists call Cutting Edge Art rather than the concept of Revolutionary Art used by the Moderns.

“It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at “abstract” or “nonobjective” art — and poetry, too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape — not its picture — is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself… The very values in the name of which he invokes the absolute are relative values, the values of aesthetics. And so he turns out to be imitating, not God — and here I use “imitate” in its Aristotelian sense — but the disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves. This is the genesis of the “abstract….”

…But today such culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs — our ruling class. For it is to the latter that the avant-garde belongs. No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”

“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, Clement Greenberg, 1939 (italics and bold are mine)

This Modernist compelling scenario has underwritten our avant-garde since the 1950s. Clem’s masterful idea of studio production and real-world marketing targeting a particular audience as potential customers was wholly new at the time, and I dare say, radical. No avant-garde that came before had been so outwardly marketed as a “product” meant for a particular kind of  collector. Within a few years his avant-garde had become a huge financial success. Clem’s formula and seal of approval changed the entire game. It turns out he was a genius of marketing and promotion. Painters who had worked in obscurity and poverty for years suddenly found themselves featured in magazines, collected by museums and shipping their work around the world to be shown in other art capitals.

What followed was an explosion of new art, young artists, new professionals, galleries, and the formation of a growing and industrious art world that didn’t need Clem’s imprimatur in order to sell – as long as the work honed to the formula. In fact Clem’s Modernist scenario has been so effective that even to this day his principles defining how Modernist art should work continue to underwrite the recurring Process oriented sub-genres that fuel and dominate our market driven avant-garde. NeoModernists, Postmodernists and now the NeoLiberal Modernists have all successfully employed Clem’s formula to great effect and great success. In fact all “advanced art” made these days conforms to this formula even when employing the world of common experience.


What’s interesting in the Hirst video is how everything presented is about Process: How it’s made, how it’s presented, how it’s perceived, how much it costs, and how the market is involved in every facet of the spectacle. What we are looking at and what that might mean is never fully discussed and is not of any real interest. Logistics, production, presentation, and performance are what matters. The Process, the Market, abstracts everything!

Part 2 to come…

Enough Already…

Just when you think you’ve encountered all the silly business that you can possibly come across about the nature of the Modernist Art world, you come across yet another article that readjusts your perspective. After reading Jonathan Jones’ column on Jeff Koons’ Handbags I’ve lost the will to live. I don’t even know how to comment on this stuff any more. Here are a few choice things to mull over…

“High art needs all the friends it can get.”

“I can’t think of a simpler way to put great art at the forefront of modern minds. This is not a cynical exercise. The hunt painting is not a pop icon – yet – but a serious painting beloved by art connoisseurs. Jeff Koons, for instance.”

“This is not simply a line of luxury bags. It is an artist’s meditation on the masters, in handbag form. Picasso copied and reworked great paintings in his later years.”

Frills, foliage and flesh … Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work adorns a Vuitton bag designed by Jeff Koons. Photograph: Louis Vuitton

I used to think that Jonathan Jones knew better. I’ve enjoyed his column quite often in the past, but after this ridiculous crit I think I’ll have to take a pass for a while. There is no way that anyone with a modicum of sense would actually make this particular claim for an image that’s been plastered on an obscenely expensive handbag…

“F(a)r from rubbing Rubens in the dirt and reducing the sublime to the worthless, these luxury objects look to me like heartfelt homages to great art. Koons clearly has an erudite and passionate love of oil painting, for while his bags touting the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Cypresses may be easy on our brains, he is also bravely educating us by insisting on the glamour of Rubens, Titian and Fragonard.”

Bravely Educating? Seriously???