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.
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.
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.
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….
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…
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.
Abstractionists, both for and against, just can’t seem to quit Mr. Greenberg – even at this late date. However, these days Clem’s Neo-Modern legacy is used more for practical concerns than theoretical ones. In other words, if a painter wanted to make a beautiful, sellable, marketable abstraction how would she go about it? The Modernist formal recipe is a fairly simple enterprise – abstraction happens in the application of materials – From A to B so to speak. Unfold swaths of canvas, use industrial amounts of whatever medium is handy, and if really daring, apply those materials over some kind of schematic map or grid. Viola! A lovely decorative object full of Modernist Process and Material Purity. Out of this Fordist formula have come recent market investment favorites like the Zombies and the Provisionals and whatever other abstraction that looks suitably manufactured for a High Net Worth Individual.
These newly minted objects do not work like Old-School Formalists’ productions. Those lyrical color-fields would unfold like academic landscape painting rather than “antiqued” countertop surfaces. They included vast meadows of clotted hues, hazy stretches of flat skies, splashes of watery mediums, occasional itchy-scratchy lines or a lazy geometric shape floating in the ambiguous acreage. All of this Neo-Modern formalism was bound up with an evangelic reverence for the purity of material color and surface flatness – a mixture of Modern strictures and Transcendentalist romanticism. These artists wanted to maintain a connection to historical precedent while doing away with the need for image making, and what was sought was mindful, meditative, abstract landscapes.
Today’s Formalism has done away with that Old School acolyte fervor in favor of pure Postmodern studio productions. Rather than explicate the banal realities and theoretics of how the thing is made the POMO formalist will simply “feature” those processes. Process (as manufacture) and purity (as material and/or medium,) Clem’s formal contingencies, are front and center. The economic art world over the last few years has become filled with these kind of niche productions – from the classic types like painting, sculpture and photography, all the way to conceptual video installation and one-night-only performance pieces. What is important for these works is the documenting of the processes surrounding and supporting the making, displaying and selling of the piece. The event supplants the final outcome. And this creates a strange relationship to the work itself, makes it into a kind of theatrical prop. The final work in this case is like a MacGuffin – “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place, or person; other, more abstract types include money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.” This is how abstractions of abstraction happen in our NeoLiberal society.
Production, manufacture and the business associated with those processes have fascinated American artists since the mid 1800s. Our early Modernists – artists like Stieglitz, Demuth, Davis, and Sheeler – were mesmerized by industrial America. The AbExers adopted new kinds of studio production in order to create formal abstraction. The desire to “end the easel picture” was on everyone’s lips. In the late 50s and early 60s the hum of machined perfection and a new kind of abstract production drew artists like Stella, Judd and Andre. The slickness and ubiquity of mechanical media was also the focus in the work of Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein. As the meaning of Process changed, as new means for Process became available it changed the structures and outcomes of Clem’s Neo-Modernism. And it was done quickly and decisively.
Our culture today is not only created on machines, but it is disseminated and received through them as well. Our world is flooded with mechanically created process imagery – videos of high-tech programmed rockets going down chimney stacks, slo-mo car accident footage, POV pornography and reality DIY television. We can’t get enough of these working programmable machines focusing on the endless explications of technique. So why wouldn’t these interactions translate into art, into our “advanced” culture, especially when it’s the focus of so much of our everyday existence? In fact we have reached the point where artists can say without irony that the process, the making of the thing, has actually made the thing in itself redundant.
It was fun watching the Gerhard Richter movie a couple of years back. We got to see the master hard at work in his astounding studio making a series of new works. I could have done without the annoying atonal soundscapes playing in the background. But I guess there was a need for some transcendent flavor to tart up the banality of it all. (Why? – for goodness sake…) What I did find interesting in the film was that Richter started these paintings as formalist abstract landscapes and then proceeded to wipe them out with layer upon layer of viscous oil paint applied with larger and ever larger, what? – squeegees, scrapers, I don’t know, application tools. Whatever they’re called the old man struggled at times with these clumsy things pushing the thick goop up and down, left and right, buffing those surfaces into a luscious oily sheen. Then he would go back in to antique the shimmery finishes, scraping away the icing layer that he had labored to apply. I was a bit horrified by all of this, I have to say. So much waste to create that handmade distressed surface of clotted color…. But there was also a deeper and more significant symbolism at “work” here. The “abstract” picture or the “abstract” image must be wiped out, buried under the process and materiality of paint. Even as the culture at large is swamped in images, even as abstraction has claimed every image that we see, the answer to our world of abstracted images is to engage in a retrograde iconoclasm.
However you feel about Richter’s paintings you have to admit that this movie is his “Jackson Pollock” moment. Most of us have seen Hans Namuth’s famous film about Jackson painting (with similar annoying atonal music, by the way.) This particular film also has the distinction of being infamous – an Icarus myth-in-the-making if there ever has been one. After the day of filming Jackson got lethally hammered starting his painful slide into oblivion. But thankfully, Richter’s movie certifies and celebrates this legendary painter in a different Neo-Liberal economic way. We get to see the systems, the economics, the machines and programs in detail which have created the master we all know and love. This kind of documentary has become ubiquitous in today’s Economic Art World. Videos of artists working in their studios are something of a right of passage. And in fact our fascination and celebration of process through process, abstraction through abstraction, has become a means of dramatizing the banality of making art itself.
In the recent “Mr. Turner” we get to see all the drama of Turner working his magic during the famous Summer Exhibition. The dramatic art competition, the furious painting performance, the overwrought plays of personality heighten the historical theatrical inaccuracies. The film creates a retroactive art historical legend – “Harry Potter and the Wizard of the Royal Academy.” I also like that this particular DVD “extra” clip is actually a DIY reality show that describes the complicated process about making a dead artist’s studio process “real” for a contemporary film. Two for one so to speak.
(I’ve clipped the vid to the first couple of minutes – click on the vid to watch the whole thing in youtube if you like. Or better yet rent or buy the thing…)
Clem’s ideas about how an advanced culture works were very straight forward. In AG&K there is a brief but frank discussion about its constituents and how they should function. Clem understood that High Culture isn’t created for the average citizen. No. The rank and file, the hoi polloi, prefer the prepackaged products manufactured by the economic markets – the easily sellable entertainments of Popular Culture. Clem, instead, makes the case for an advanced culture produced for the cultivated spectator – a person of wealth and refinement who has achieved a “high” level of success, ease, education and sophistication. This person would be able to invest and protect this advanced work, create a situation for the avant-garde artist to make a living from her work and prosper, make advanced culture viable and available within the much wider and more popular lower forms of culture. And in this particular case Clem set himself up to be the gate keeper for access to that advanced culture. Clever sod.
At the time Clem wrote AG&K there was very little of this kind of interest and investment in speculative advanced Art going on in the US, especially for American painters. Most of the moneyed collectors, the “cultivated spectators,” were still going to Europe for their avant-garde purchases. The mainstays of these cultivated collectors were Impressionism, early Modernism, and for the daring collector a bit of louche Surrealism. Very little money was being spent on the 8th Street painters. As it turned out, Clem, in addition to being a great theorist was also a practical businessman. And he was great at creating a market and a network for the New York Art World.
Clem was instrumental in manufacturing the American avant-garde art world into a vibrant business model – almost from scratch. Yes, that’s hyperbole, there were many others pushing in this direction as well, but Clem was the American Avant-garde’s CEO. Thanks to him by the end of the 1950s the Rockefellers were collecting abstract work in a big way for their corporate and government interests. (The Empire State Plaza Art Collection looks like it has Clem Greenberg’s imprints all over it.) And money began to flow into this new economy in a big way. By the time the Sculls (who began collecting in the mid ’50s) sold there collection in the early 70s, a 1958 Rauschenberg purchased for 900 bucks was auctioned for 85,000 frickin’ dollars. Bucks to dollars in about 15 years time – making the Avant-garde a gold standard investment.
We must not be deceived by superficial phenomena and local successes. Picasso’s shows still draw crowds, and T. S. Eliot is taught in the universities; the dealers in modernist art are still in business, and the publishers still publish some “difficult” poetry. But the avant-garde itself, already sensing the danger, is becoming more and more timid every day that passes. Academicism and commercialism are appearing in the strangest places. This can mean only one thing: that the avant-garde is becoming unsure of the audience it depends on — the rich and the cultivated…. Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes. Clement Greenberg “Avant Garde and Kitsch” 1939.
Unlike Clem’s monetary dilemma in the 30s the “avant-garde” today is not unsure of the audience it depends upon. The rich and the cultivated flock to art fairs, gallery openings, biennials and trade shows by the Learjet load. And once there they hand over billions of dollars each year to the Art Economy. Our infrastructure – museums, galleries, auction houses and media – celebrates these collectors and mythologizes their largess in embarrassing shows of fawning supplication. Our “avant-garde” produces work strictly for these “cultivated collectors” in special limited editions, in designer private-label series, so that each collector class will be able to buy their own version of the exact same thing. (And be assured that these series are purposely “limited” so that future demand can outstrip supply.) Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs, Cattelan’s Hanging Horses, Nauman’s Neons, Warhol’s Poppies, Stella’s Constructions, whatever the art is, it’s being done in marketable, publicized, certified and documented series. Even if these products are handmade one-of-a-kind objects they are done with the market and the collecting economy in mind.
Most all the gallery shows (at least here in NYC) are made up of works that are of the same “collectible” size, all on the same theme and in many cases, all done with similar compositions and color schemes – not exact copies but close enough to be recognizable as part of a specific period, a branded style, an “important” moment of “revelation.” This economic mania for the “series” may harken back to the “production” precedent set by Modern artists like Cezanne who spent a lifetime hanging his chunky brushstrokes all over that little blue mountain in the South of France. But for Paul making a “series” of work was humanely different. He wasn’t producing work for the next show or the next collector or the market, because there wasn’t one – at least not for his work. We are all taught in our MFA schools, encouraged by our gallerists and indoctrinated by other successful artists that THIS current Career Process, this market process, is the correct one. This is how it’s done. This is our model to maintain a thriving avant-garde and a successful career.
“It is a visual, and therefore, a visceral betrayal.”
Modernism began with a critique of not only culture, but society, politics and economics. For decades the Modern program was to build a new kind of society, a new kind of economy and a new kind of vision to define that society. But those theoretical intentions didn’t really flourish until the mid-Century when Modernism and Capital came together in Clem’s Neo-Modernism. And we can not dismiss the fact that when Clem wrote AG&K in 1939 he was a Marxist, but by the 1960s he had changed his tune a bit to become a more profit minded Socialist. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Cold War ended in 1991 Fukuyama declared the American Empire the defacto “winner” bringing into power the NeoLiberal Economic Era. Since that moment the world has become fully capitalized, privatized and corporatized. Our Global Economy exists and thinks in terms of Capital. Our only solutions to humanity’s problems, every solution to every global issue, is Corporatization, privatization, capitalization – from art to science, war to peace, housing to healthcare, urban planning to farming, global warming to energy exploration, and in our tiny art world, high and low culture – you name it, whatever the problem, or in the parlance of NeoLiberalism, whatever “opportunity” presents itself, the solution involves a profit making Process of one kind or another. This is the purity of process and Postmodern contextual replacement – an abstraction of an abstraction that creates an economic opportunity.
There has never been a more abstract society, a more abstract culture than we have today. And whether we agree with Clem or not he was right on the money (so to speak) about the “avant-garde” and their supporters. What doesn’t exist any longer in our avant-garde is the “float” of innovation and rebellion that used to exist between “reality” and what used to be called “abstraction.” Today it is one and same. Process and purity may have driven the Neo-Modern era, but Postmodernism emptied that out. Process and purity no longer describe an aesthetic, they have no meaning for vision, no meaning for an avant-garde that uses them as a selling point for the cultivated collector. As I’m swiping and touching, capturing and uploading, checking my bank balance and paying my credit cards, purchasing all kinds of goods and services with apps of every kind and type – process exists independently of intention – it exists without existence – it functions without history – without input – without involvement…. And in the midst all of this Abstract Process we can no longer hold onto the hollow idea that Abstraction could or should be considered subversive or innovative. Especially in this age where the Abstract is Real.
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.
FEEL THE REAL
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.
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.
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
“It’s the art world equivalent of a one-hit wonder, where sudden stardom and outsize demand for a particularly hot artist creates intense pressure, and has the potential to create unsustainable spikes in his or her market and career.”
The marvelous and controversial Stefan Simchowitz, who has become the face of the new Economic Modernist art world, had a few choice words to say about it. This guy is a pistol without a safety switch!
“Parker Ito, Christian Rosa, Lucien Smith, Hugh Scott Douglas, Nina Beier, Sam Falls. I have had dust ups in one way or another with every one of these artists. Remarkable watching the auctions. I do not manage or work with any of the above artists, and have not done so for some time. It has nothing to do with this dumb term Zombie Formalism. It has to do with poor decision making, greed, stupidity, over production, gallery mismanagement and general dumb ass behavior.”
“The era in which you could buy something for $3,000 and sell it for $100,000 a month later is fully over,” Bill Powers, whose Half Gallery held Smith’s solo debut in New York in 2012, said in a phone interview. “And rightly so. That was unsustainable exuberance.”
“Painting has been back in the limelight long enough that those reminiscences are starting to become distant memories, war stories of a kind that make my painter friends under 40 glaze over – what the hell do they care about the days when everyone thought Matthew Barney was God and the Biennial was a series of video booths that resembled a peep show? Like my young friends who didn’t live through that, I’m just going to look back on it with a shrug, if at all.”
“The great stylistic phases (Cubism, last work), and emblematic works by Pablo Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Guernica) are put alongside contemporary creations, grouped by artist (Hockney, Johns, Lichtenstein, Kippenberger..), or by theme, in a great variety of media and techniques (video, painting, sculpture, graphic arts, film, photography, installation).”
It has been a summer of strange and wonderful places, surreal incidences and itchy portents. At the moment I’m on a balcony of a hotel overlooking the town of Sausalito. In another time this town might have been called an American hamlet, a bedroom community, but today for some inexplicable reason it is considered a tourist mecca. Below there are hundreds of sun glassed weekend bikers clad in black spandex, cleated shoes, and plastic airflow helmets. More surprising are the packs of foreign sightseers making their way to and from the ferry (mostly from Italy and Japan.) The open air tour buses circle the marina entertaining the paying customers with – what? fuck all? the bay? the parking lot? the boats in the harbor? what???? What is so interesting? It’s lost on me. From my balcony Sausalito looks very Mediterranean, but with a decidedly American accent. The area is quite charming. It’s quiet. And there’s nothing to do, hence its charm. Its proximity to San Fransisco, where there are sight seeing opportunities, is also a big plus. But unfortunately, I will not be making my way into SF for sights and museums and really pungent sweaty seals at the wharf. I won’t have time. This evening I’m going to the wedding of a friend, and tomorrow Delta economy awaits for a butt-numbing 5 plus hour flight back to NYC. It’s an Un-trip, a faux vacation, a red-eye-turn-around. But as I sit here looking out to the bay I’m reminded of the south of France and the coast of Italy in a very real way. I’m happy.
As for Art, well that’s becoming more of an after thought in this freaky summer heat. I recently went to the new Whitney at the end of the High Line, and was impressed and disheartened all at the same time by the kind of museum that the Whitney has become. There is a fab new restaurant on street level – all outsourced, glassy and très chic. The expansive lobby has an open access bookstore – no walls, no separation just an area in which one might purchase stuff. The museum itself feels a lot like the kind of 21st century museum you’d see featured on level 5 of a video game like Grand Theft Auto, or to be more precise, it looks like one of those 20 story shiny glass POMO condo buildings erected specifically for one-percent pied-à-terre investors looking for a tax break and a pathway to dual citizenship. Inside the museo the Starchitect’s combination of open walls and high-end hard wood floors gives one a sense of floatation and ever emptying space. And it’s this lack of place and gravity that has come to define so many of our new museums. It describes a kind of life spent in airport lounges and hotel penthouses. And this groundless existence has an effect. The wall art in this world is little more than a backdrop for party photo-ops, camera fodder for the attendees which are then posted in all the online “features” about who is in and who is on. The upper floor (7? I don’t know I was too busy floating about…) with the ABEX paintings has a great deal of open space and torrents of light pouring in through the enormous glass façade. DeKoo’s brush stroke landscape looks a classic, but it feels really, really, REALLY old fashioned. (I take no pleasure in saying that.) Newman looks positively inert in the sheer raking light, and the”curators” have hung a Pollock painting wrong way up, or as my Mom used to say, “arse over tip”, because the painting was once photographed that way for a fashion shoot featured in a 1950s Vogue magazine. This kind of thinking only serves to drive home the point of flotation and dislocation – just like Jeff Koons’ balls.
New York Groove
At a recent dinner my good friend Paul Corio assured me that the painting world is sound. Paul was adamant that there are a number of young abstractionists making new and exciting work. (Paul will be posting his Fall Roundup soon.) So, I calmed down a bit. But online there’s very little being written about new ideas and new visions. Most of of the articles I’ve come across are about Art as Economy, art as a price point, art as gentrification and the absolute importance of curation and curators. In fact these articles are all so similar in tone and style that it’s almost as if the writers have been cutting and pasting from the same article.
In the Art World 2.0 innovation takes place ONLY in the market place not so much in the studios. We are assured that business models are the new focus for the “avant-garde.” A good recent example of this kind of Forbesian art write up was on Art Net. It listed the 17 Disruptors Changing the US Art World. The best thing in this otherwise dry and tasteless article about the business of art is a blurb about the fabulous Cady Noland’s continuing resistance and formidable insistence on being left out of this hack game. Her unabashed use of the “business friendly” court system to make her point must be particularly galling to these “good” profit-minded folk. The art world’s continuing fascination and insistence on business, ownership, copyright and litigation over provenance are also great examples of how we have reached the point where today’s blue chip artists must employ a phalanx of copyright lawyers and litigation specialists in order to make their work. In fact for certain well-known artists having their law firms on speed dial is probably part of their creative process, or in the parlance of MFA/BFA, part of their “practice.”
Work Goes On
It’s not easy coming to terms with this new Economic Modernist world especially in the studio. But I do know a few artists who are business savvy while working hard in their studios trying to engage with the visual realities of our new century! Michael Zahn and Paul Corio have been pushing their work into new territory and it’s been fun to watch.
Michael is currently showing at OMI upstate New York, and I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over his installation through photos. This show in combination with the three month series of abstract painting shows Michael curated at the beginning of this year have been a tour-de-force for thoughtful and beautiful abstract painting. “Oysters with Lemon” was a breathe of fresh air even as the painting world seemed stifled and congested by Zombie formalism, Retro Myopia and Post-Postmodern Ennui. Michael brought a new visual force into his work and into his thinking by confronting Postmodern abstraction from the Minimalist 60s, the experimental formalist 70s, the Neo-Geo 80s and the fragmented New Abstraction of the 90s. This new series of paintings, one group of tondi first seen in OWL and now again at OMI, encounter the organizing power of the electronic reality we engage with every day – the super flat world most of us spend entirely too much of our existence navigating. Michael has pulled familiar icons and signs, the “virtual communication” emoji that we use as a shorthand for our feelings, and painted them into bright and menacing realities sitting on the walls. In person these paintings feel like a different form of programmed figuration.
In his green “emoji” entitled “Dennis” Michael recreates a “received” grey text bubble – the emoji both grinning and grimacing at once – the painting becomes a warped electronic abstract “figure” pushing its way into the visual world. It’s both an object and a figurative image at once. Surprisingly there’s a great deal of emotion wrapped up in these wonderfully strange abstractions, and a real visual engagement emerges from Michael’s perfect surfaces and specific color. I also think that this particular tondo shows how fearless Michael has been in portraying emotion while painting with such rigorously objective visual theoretics.
Geometries and Space
Paul has been showing non-stop over the last few months, and he’s been pushing the boundaries of his own works with every new show. My favorite of these new paintings has opened up the space in his work in a very different way. Paul had been treating his surfaces as a whole, his color, patterns and geometries doing the heavy illusionistic work creating a kind of 60’s optical crunch. But Paul was also being playful with these patterns throwing in a hiccup to these systems and sending the illusions along different pathways. These optical glitches would change the expectations, upset the rhythms. But in this painting Paul has gone back further, historically, and opened up his geometries to the idea of actual visual illusion which plays against the “push and pull” or optical punch of his earlier color geometries. This painting begins to create its own deeper illusionistic space. The geometry feels “figurative” tracing the surface, then falling away into the distance only to return again. The bands describe and then break the edges of the canvas, fade in and out, moving forward and back. This surprisingly fast visual movement is clever, open, alive and visually engaging. It’s almost got a 19th Century feel, a kind of Impressionist’s take on the Op movement reintroducing light, illusion and physical imagery into the optics and color theoretics. This painting is an exciting challenge not only to Paul’s own history, but to the recent history of abstract geometric painting.
The fabulous George Hofmann has posted some amazing watercolors and new paintings on his site. George continues to push the boundaries of the lyrical abstraction/post painterly abstraction of the 1960s to create something really different. I love his paintings on the wood panels and this one from 2014-2015 entitled Scatter Flight is really daring. He attacks the surface of his work so thoroughly that the paint is barely there. The false wood grains, the graphic textures, are almost like drawing – they lead the eye, push it up and through the paint. The paint itself is always moving, always alive even as it breaks across the surface. It’s a lesson in seeing how far a painter can pare back the painted surface and still create an engaging image, still create a visual experience of imagery. This kind of tack reminds me of my friend Dennis Bellone’s work as well. Dennis was constantly stripping back the paint, the image, to find a moment of near dissolution where the image, not the painting, would still hold together. I don’t see this as provisional, but as a way to define a painted image whether that image is photographic or abstract. And I think imagery, whether abstract or figurative, is an exciting place to begin for painters at this point in our history.
After years of appropriation and the Postmodern reworking of historical and popular imagery it’s interesting that painters are beginning to create a different kind of visual interaction with images. It may be because we are so inundated with these things. It may be because we are exhausted from the Retro-Greenbergs, the Retro-Formalists, the Retro-Figuratives and the absolute deluge of reworked Retro-Abstraction. The artists that I’ve seen creating interesting work are thinking about and experimenting with images both as abstraction and as figuration – and they’re playing with the focus and content of those images. Maybe Paul is right – there are great things forming in the studios…. We’ll see!
I began this as a reply to a recent comment by the artist, critic and theorist Martin Mugar and I thought it might be better as a post. Please forgive the editing – it was done on the fly – So without further ado….
Thanks for your comments, happy to be back. I just read the linked article in your comment, and unfortunately, it’s based in the same kind of Postmodern thinking as the work it categorizes and catalogues for us. We are presented with a menu of style and we can pick and choose á la carte. There’s something here for everyone. What’s interesting about the work he mentions is how accessible it all is without it being overtly distinct. Pepe comes across as a purveyor of goods, a proprietor of painting. The article is not so much a celebratory lauding of a new golden age or even the lasting legacy of painting itself, but it comes across as an inventory, a back catalogue of goods and services. And since art is now an economic activity this makes perfect sense. What Pepe is actually describing are long tail retail strategies for the continued economic viability of abstract painting.
So many of the abstractionists on his list seem to prize the professionalism of painting over expression, but there are a couple of exceptions. For the most part these artists’ works are capable, handsome, manufactured at the top end, filled with expected outcomes and familiar tropes – it’s proven, sanctioned and branded. However, even though I think that a lot of this work is (in Pepe’s words) “good”, I continue to want abstraction to move, change, evolve, and become something different. I want the work to be hotter, if that makes any sense. In the Postmodern Era we prefer our Art to be cool, ironic, to have a high-end slickness to its presentation. And this kind of “coolness” isn’t just in our painting – it goes across the board through all of our culture. For instance we are going through a cycle of branded entertainment now with the Summer Blockbuster Movie season. That kind of easy product, the accessibility and familiarity of it, is how money is made in our Modernist Entertainment Culture. Art, especially painting, is all about the coolness factor and it’s manufactured and presented like products that define a luxury lifestyle. Unlike Pepe, I do think most painting is dead in this way. It has become something we manufacture for a select group of collectors, and once we’ve hit on something sellable, we brand it and reproduce it like Ferrari F12 Berlinettas.
I prefer the one-off, the masterpiece. The one image that seers into your brain and is carried with you for a lifetime. Doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot of other work done by the artist. After all an artist has to eat, right? But there should be a few great one-offs in a career. In the Modern era Picasso had them, Matisse, Pollock, De Kooning, Johns and Rauschenberg had them at the beginning of their careers, even Warhol had his in the beginning. But there were not too many others after them that did – though there has been a steady stream of branded series painters making “good” work. And I have a bit of a problem with that. I prefer the conceit of the arrogant stage comedian, like Chris Rock, who after his set would hold the mic out arm’s length, open his hand and let it drop to the floor, walk off stage. He left the set behind never to be done again. One and done. But that’s not the case with so many of the artists on Pepe’s list, and I’m sad to say that’s not how Entertainment Modernism works. There will always be a part II, III and IV, ad infinitum, or at least until the tickets stop selling.
When Michelangelo first came to Rome he was seduced and overpowered by the Belvedere torso, the same one that’s now dramatically presented in the Vatican Museum. And it was so powerful an image that it changed Michele’s whole relationship to sculpture, painting and drawing. In fact it deeply influenced the work he was then doing on the Sistine ceiling. He was already hailed as a genius, a purveyor of Neo-Classic Florentine culture, and he could have continued to work as he had for his entire career. He was after all – the consummate professional. But there was something about this sculpture that fired his imagination, and nearly overnight his work became a different thing altogether. What Michele was not afraid of, what he was willing to risk was his own passion, his own personal demons. The Belvedere is not only beautiful, it is powerfully sexual, and it’s supremely obvious that it fired his passions in a deeply transformative way. Because of the Belvedere he created thick, persistent fleshy imagery that wound up upending the “professionalism” of his day. He changed and redefined the Renaissance as something different. In fact his imagery was so jarring that the Pope had the scaffolding taken down half way through the making of the piece to show it off to Rome. It set the art world on fire.
Years later Michele would be asked to do it once again behind the main altar of the Sistine with his Last Judgment. But this time he was older and he approached it with a different sensibility. His Belvedere discovery had been refined through the years and had started an informal “school” of Mannered art. Still, he was Michelangelo, an artist known for his terribilità and he once again challenged the taste makers of the day. He packed so much Mannerist nudity and sexuality on that wall that the church had to reconsider. So, the Vatican bean counters hired a hack to chip out and cover the crotches of all the massive flesh that Michele had dared to paint. But up above on his ceiling they didn’t touch a thing. The altar fresco was “contemporary”, a full on Neo-Platonic Mannerism filled with heretical bath house sexuality. It was of its time and place. The ceiling, however, is a personal Classicism so audacious and sacrosanct that they dared not touch it. Michele’s transformative passion is what mattered on the ceiling, and because of it his work was like no other artist of his day. Yes, he was trained by the Florentine institutional artists to be a “professional”, but on his own he went further into the past, and in so doing, further into his own passionate heart. There is nothing “slick”, “cool”, or “professional” about either of these one-off masterpieces. They burn. One and done, then Michele dropped the mic.
Abstractionists today are all over the boards trying desperately to find a niche in the long tail of our art economy. Pepe’s article makes that clear to me. But what I do not see in his list, and what I long for in abstraction is the thing that Michele brought to his own world, that thing that sparked some fantastically inspired one-offs – like the fresco I saw in Florence by Bronzino or Tintoretto’s San Rocco wonderland in Venice. There is a hot, visual quality to these works. You can feel the combustibility. You can see the passion. And that is, for me, something that I prize. Maybe the problem with our branded Postmodern painting is not with the professionalism in the work we see, but with the hearts that make it. Maybe what we need do is reconsider who and what we are as artists.
Friend of Henri, Michael Zahn, is participating in a show at the OMI International Arts Center curated by the wonderful artist, painter and curator, Julie Ryan. Details of the show are here: The Crayon Miscellany. From the few photos I’ve seen we’re all in for a treat – summer in the New York countryside and galleries and landscapes filled with color! Make plans for a wonderful experience!
The Crayon Miscellany 2015 Summer Group Exhibition
curated by Julie Ryan
Exhibition Preview, Curator’s Talk + Cocktail Party: Friday, June 12, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
Tickets are $25 for non-members and free for members.
(members, please RSVP to email@example.com)
Opening: Saturday, June 13, 1-5 PM
The opening on June 13 is FREE and open to the public.
The exhibition will be on view through September 27, 2015.
Donald Baechler: Saturday, June 27, 4 PM
Pamela Fraser: Saturday, July 18, 4 PM
Returning to the “real” world is sometimes a difficult thing. You slide back into your life. Everything feels just a bit off, nothing fits. It’s during times like these that I’ve been able to think outside of my own box. On the return plane ride I was ruminating about the Biennale, particularly about Sarah Lucas’ show in the British Pavilion. I really wanted to like this show. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past. She has a light touch about difficult things, she’s cheeky, and I like those qualities immensely. But during my walk through the pavilion a thought kept coming back to me. At first it seemed unfair, or maybe I just wasn’t dealing with the things in front of me with an open mind. So, I kept my mouth shut and tried to turn off my brain. But once the genie is out of the bottle – well, you know that old truism.
Dave Hickey once bemoaned the fact that ALL of us were held in check by the legacy of Bruce Nauman. I thought that was a bit off, but among the YBAs Nauman is a god and taskmaster. I was enjoying Sarah’s exhibit right up until the moment I saw the big, fat elephant lounging about in all of these rooms (and it wasn’t supposed to be part of the show – of that I’m sure). And that elephant was the pernicious legacy of Bruce Nauman. In fact as I went through the entire Biennale, both the Giardini and the Arsenale, I continued to see Nauman’s legacy in a lot of the work on view – including his own neon pieces that begin the Arsenale exhibition. I imagined a neon that lit up “Nauman”, then “Rip Off”, then “Nauman” again. But I guess in our Postmodern era of Entertainment Modernism we should just understand that innovation, or even personal style, is something that is no longer a worry in making one’s art. What we are supposed to enjoy, what we are supposed to become involved with is the artist, rather than the art.
“There is a paradox at the centre of much contemporary art: while the means by which that art is pursued are steadily less expressive of the artist’s personality, more reliant on conventional ideas than feelings, more the assemblage of ready-made elements than the creation of organic compositions, the personality of the artist, far from shrinking, has greatly expanded, sometimes overshadowing the work. Furthermore, the very fact that artists do rather little to their material but nevertheless garner huge rewards leads to a fascination with the artist as an individual.” Julian Stallabrass, “High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s,” page 18.
What Sarah brings to this pernicious legacy is her own sensibility, her own biography. Each body cast is an impersonal portrait, each one also acts as Lucas’ stand in. The sexual and excretory orifices of these topless forms contain a cigarette, an ever present prop in the life of this artist. One cast hovers over a toilet in the classic “morning after a hard night” pose, another sprawls across a table top, another collapsed in a heap, one straddles a toilet, one spread eagle on an office desk. At the beginning of the show is a “painting” of “Page Three” vixens providing, “the tops”, portraits, the images of desire that accompany and lead to the outcomes portrayed by the cast plaster lower extremities. These are women worn into and out of passion, caught by addiction, fluctuating desires and lived passions. At the very entrance of the pavilion, presented to us twice – once on the portico outside to double the point – may be the reason for this state of affairs. It’s a swollen, phallic monster arching his member high into the air looking for release. He is not fleshed out, he is a lumpy cartoon, a desiring sexual animal (and this is made clear by the other lumpy animals in the show.) The fact that Sarah calls him “Maradona” – after a legendary football player, a symbol of physical hyper-masculinity – may even be a sublimation of Nauman’s continuing presence in this very show. In other words Nauman is Maradona, the giant prick father of generations of desiring and spent Postmodern hero worshippers.
Alright – I’ve gone Over The Top with that, but I’m allowed. Venice makes allowances for such things. I really wanted to like this show, but it turns out that I like Sarah Lucas better than the show. There’s a lot of clever punning going on, a lot of sensitive issues being laid bare with a bit of dry humor. The installation is perfect. But there never is an actual challenge to the giant prick father. And in the end that’s what I hope to see.