A few random thoughts – again…

Jasper Johns Summer 1985 [nostalgia?]

I am obsessed at the moment with the concept of nostalgia. So I’ll throw out a few random thoughts, and we’ll see if this goes anywhere. Dave Hickey left us the idea of the 40 year rule. Now in the past a generation existed over 20 years – so we’re talking about the passing of time through 2 generations – and this would be enough for the past to be forgotten and become a source to use as innovation. [Think of Rauschenberg’s use of DaDa – Twombly’s use of the “Return to Order”.] What isn’t equated in this 40 year rule is our era’s computer programming and the electronic world where all times, all eras [especially since the 1960s], exist all at once. The end of history means that there is no passing of time. Nothing separates the past from the present.

Colin de Land and Christian Nagel at the booth shared by Galerie Christian Nagel and American Fine Arts, Co., Gramercy International Art Fair, New York, 1996

Our light speed era traffics in the idea that technology is the driving force of the Avant Garde – it’s an avant garde aimed at the fastest part of our society – the economy. Most of the “innovation” in the art world over the last 30 years [since the crash of 1987] has been done on the business side. Art itself seems to be caught in a loop. The true innovators of our current art scene were Colin de Land, Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks and Paul Morris. In 1994 they presented the first “art fair” at the Gramercy Hotel which restarted the busted and broke New York gallery scene. [de Land, Hearn information] This moment occurred at the start of the internet revolution and the Neo-Liberal economic revolution. And within a few years these changes caused a shift to the understanding, production, dissemination and importance of art – all across our culture.

If you’re on instagram you can trip through the past so quickly it’s astounding. The thing is – so much of this past is being made right here in the present. Much of the contemporary painting we see could rest comfortably in any part of the Post War era. The art repeats, repeats, and repeats again losing its physical connection to the past each time it repeats. Think of bit coin – an abstraction of an abstraction of currency which is based on an abstracted reality of a real world “valued” object such as land or gold or precious gems. Every time we abstract some thing, some process or style, we strip away part of its physicality, part of its temporality – the thing gets lighter and faster on its way to being a concept. And this speed begins to strip the past of meaning by removing its physicality, its context and its innovation, creating a ground for our nostalgic ruminations.

Paul Corio in studio 2015

I’ll leave you with my friend Paul Corio’s good rebuttal to an older post here on Henri: “A reverential look at the past is not an abdication of the responsibility to make an art suitable for our own era. For the best artists, it’s a place to begin. Great artists will use it to create something that looks fresh, and the weak artists (always the majority) will use it to create something that looks nostalgic and retro.”

Cream of the Jest

Robert Rauschenberg Early Bloomer Anagram (A Pun) 1998

No other artist in the last half of the 20th Century created a body of work that has influenced more painters than Robert Rauschenberg. His use and understanding of Duchamp and the DaDaists, AbEx painting and his wild man compositional style can still be seen in the work of artists from all over the world. Bob [Milton] came out of Port Arthur, Texas, a dirt poor southern city. And like many southern towns during the Depression there was grinding poverty, pernicious fundamentalist christianity and a lack of culture so severe it might be that Rauschenberg’s greatest achievement was getting out. But when you come from such a place [and there are still southern towns like this] – for certain folks – the only option is to get out – quickly – and never go back. Never.

RR Dante Canto XXXI 1960

“In 1960, Rauschenberg had retreated to Florida’s Treasure Island to complete a set of illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, an experience he later described as being to ‘my mature creative benefit’. But to many at the time it must have seemed an incongruous move for someone so strongly associated with the city. In 1965, when he mentioned the idea casually – and not yet entirely seriously – to art historian Dorothy Seckler, she commented: ‘I think that would be the cream of the jest for the art world: that the man who was…responsible for introducing the whole urban environment into painting…becomes a collaborator with the sun and wind and rain and flowers.’ ‘And beaches,’ Rauschenberg added. ‘I might move out there and find that all the work is finished. At that point I might just become a collector of vegetables…and I could be a critic on waves.’” [Maggie Gray on Rauschenberg November 30, 2016]

Robert Rauschenberg Axle 1964

“… I was in awe of the painters; I mean I was new in New York, and I thought the painting that was going on here was just unbelievable. I still think that Bill de Kooning is one of the greatest painters in the world. And I liked Jack Tworkov, himself and his work. And Franz Kline. But I found a lot of artists at the Cedar Bar were difficult for me to talk to. It almost seemed as though there were so many more of them sharing some common idea than there was of me, and at that time the people who gave me encouragement in my work weren’t so much the painters, even my contemporaries, but a group of musicians that were working: Morton Feldman, and John Cage, and Earl Brown, and the dancers that were around this group. I felt very natural with them. There was something about the self assertion of abstract expressionism that personally always put me off, because at that time my focus was as much in the opposite direction as it could be. I was busy trying to find ways where the imagery and the material and the meanings of the painting would be not an illustration of my will but more like an unbiased documentation of my observations…” [Rauschenberg in conversation with Dorothy Seckler]

Rauschenberg was not only determined to be an artist he was also a natural rabble rouser, a big personality. He must have seemed fearless to his friends and colleagues, and a bit of a pain in the ass to anyone who might not like what he was up to. Once Bob had arrived in NYC he quickly sorted himself through the New York art world. He got to know all the painters and many of the dealers. He connected with other controversial artists in other disciplines – John Cage and Merce Cunningham – who were trying to shake up their respective worlds. He was absolutely Promethean involving himself in everything – performance, music and art – and the focus of the NYC art world began to change quickly. Fifty years before in the South of France it was Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. Their work changed the visions and conversations about Art and painting in Paris. In NYC it was three Southerners Jasper, Cy and Bob and their influence is still all over the art world.

Southern Gentry

Horst Twomblys’ Home 1966

In the South there’s a lengthening warm light that skews and melds boundaries. It’s a louche light, surprisingly slippery in feel and flavor. And it’s for this reason that one has to imbue one’s boundaries with intention. Cezanne knew this instinctively and created a world where outlines defined structure while receding slowly into process. It’s a vision imbued with a nostalgic classicism. Cy Twombly, also a Southerner, understood this kind of vision, and I thought it would be interesting to look at the way this innate understanding of light influenced his life. In 1966 Horst took a series of photographs of the Twomblys’ life in Rome. There’s no doubt that these pictures were theatrically posed, a heightened reality, but all the “props” are there. The “ruined” villa spaces, the geometrically tiled floors, and the white stuccoed rooms bouncing the light through the spaces. These things create an atmosphere of relaxed elegance, a slow space for temporal vision. Twombly himself looks the part of the expat Southern gent combining the storied ancient history of Rome, a disreputable abstract classicism and the insouciance of the Virginia gentry. And apparently this portrayal of Twombly ruined his career for a time.

Horst Twombly’s Roma 1966

Like Twombly’s paintings there’s a nostalgia for an appropriated history in this house. The French Louis furniture, the ornate tapestries, the Roman busts and the physical graffiti all exist in the same unpredictable space, resting on the floor, leaned against the wall, and creating an elongation, a flux in this moment of time. It’s a history both lived and imagined. In Rome you can find this antique “style” nearly everywhere, but here there’s a specific purpose behind these objects. You have to remember that Twombly and Rauschenberg had traipsed all over the Mediterranean in the early 1950s, living through histories and cultures that most Americans hadn’t even imagined. Cy’s remaking himself through the Mediterranean light, through his southern upbringing, drawing fluid edges around himself and Rome to find a different sort of expressionist imagery in painting and in life. Twombly was extending his idea of history painting into these rooms and creating a Modernism imbued with Classical history.

Horst Twombly’s Richter 1966

Another surprise is in this photo – the Roman bust flanking the Richter portrait [Frau Marlow 1964 – what American had a clue about Richter in 1966?] and the ease with which these things exist together. Twombly’s eclectic use of imagery from different eras may well be the expat’s understanding and exploration of the 1920s and 30s’ “return to order” which was a search for a deeper mythology within the Modern era. In the purity obsessed US the muddying of classical history and Modernism was considered retrograde, nostalgic, suspiciously campy and based on a decadent and dangerous view of history. Greenberg didn’t much like the lost generation’s idea of European Modernism and Donald Judd [for a fun comparison have a look at Donald’s way of life and sensibilities] had a few choice words to say about Twombly’s Castelli exhibition from 1964 calling it a “fiasco”. It turns out that these evangelical progressives had no idea what was at work here and how this sort of Southern vision, space and light might capture and shape one’s imagination.

Sight to Touch

Cezanne Study of Trees 1895

“In the eighteen-sixties, [Cezanne] made an abortive run at fame in Paris with crudely vehement works—privately including wacky erotica, perhaps influenced by Gustave Courbet but mainly expressing stymied lust—in palette-knife-slathered paint. (…the urbane Manet deemed him distressingly uncouth.) Cézanne absorbed the movement’s commitment to optical truth while gradually eliminating its blushes of light in favor of defining objects with patches of close-toned color, alternately warm and cool. He then increasingly holed up on his family’s estate. There he pursued a radical ambition, saying, “I want to make of impressionism something solid and lasting, like the art in the museums.” This entailed wedding sight to touch, alert for any hints of solidity in rocks and buildings, apples and heads, as—bit by bit, stroke by stroke, with hope but no compromise with respect to over-all coherence—they met his gaze. Each daub can seem to record a discrete look, at a moment isolated in time. Sometimes the eyes in a portrait peer in different directions, evidence of the discontinuous process. Picasso and Braque adapted the effect to create Cubism: visual reality fragmented in fealty to how our eyes take it in before our brains compose the illusion of having seen it whole.” [Peter Schjeldahl]

Much of the French Modern Era was created in the South. Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne were among the best known artists who found that they could open up their color and imagery to new ideas and new thematics. There’s an entertaining program on the how the south of France influenced and changed the Parisian Modern Era entitled The French Riviera A History in Pictures. “…For a French painter in the late 19th century leaving Paris was commercial suicide. You were not only cutting yourself off from the artistic mainstream, but traveling south was like traveling back in time to another country almost to another age…” Strangely with all the great artists and painters coming out of the South (no matter which south you might be talking about) this statement still rings true.

Cezanne Forest Path 1904-06

Myths of the South

Matisse The Parakeet and the Mermaid 1952

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to get to Nice and the hill towns all around it you immediately understand why a Northerner, especially one so enamored of color and light, would head South and stay there. Matisse made many trips south over the years until he finally gave in, left Paris behind and took up residence in the hills. The mild weather, the lush landscapes, the beautiful colors, and the promise of a different kind of painting all worked on Henri’s mind. When Matisse finally settled in he lived those decades in something close to a paradise. Not Italian, but French – slower, less vitriolic, but still thick with physical emotions and grand personal imagery.

Matisse Henri – Reclining Nude (The Painter and his Model) 1935

But let’s not forget that during the decades between the wars Matisse was indulgent and spent his time creating a Hollywood studio idea of a Harem, painting and drawing one odalisque after another while enjoying himself immensely one might assume. Picasso was merciless about this period in Henri’s life, and kept prodding the aging hipster to get back to serious work. The pot calling the kettle black, really. But these were the years between the wars. The Lost Generation was finding a different kind of Modernism and changing the game. Meanwhile our two middle aged southern gents were trying desperately to remain relevant while also enjoying the fruits of their earlier successes. Never a good thing in my opinion. This period was called the “return to order” by art historians, which to my mind, misses the point. It really wasn’t order that these artists were looking for.

Matisse’s studio Hotel Regina 1953

To this day painters still try to emulate the old man and his late southern work. They take his color, his space, his haphazard compositions which fall into place with offhand precision. But what they all lack is his sensuality. These painters don’t have the same desire for opulence, nor have they the decades of emotional excess in the heat of the sun. They didn’t experience the heightened color or understand the vibrancy of living along the Blue Coast. Matisse’s late work is about the mutability of mythology – the old stories, the human dramas. Geography changes a person, makes them over into something different. In the South Matisse found brilliant color and haphazard line and open sensuality. He didn’t just strip off on the beach, burn his skin and bugger off back home with photographs and tourist encounters. He lived, looked, experienced and recreated himself.

Edisto Souvenir

Jasper Johns Fools House 1962

I have always admired the touch and feel in Jasper’s work. He managed to heighten his processes into a thick painted reality – something few painters really achieve. The brush stroke slathers through the image. The image actually becomes a thing. The thing once again reveals the process. Then the thing is nearly lost again, and that’s when the image and the process must be underwritten, revealed, and pointed out to the world by the artist himself, because even he may have forgotten it. What the thing was. How it felt. What it meant. Take a thing, etc. Every image comes from a dream or a memory, something slippery and real in one’s mind. Painting like this is a Fool’s House. But this painted thing is true, and it’s true in a way that Neo-Platonic Geometry and Endgame Aesthetics refuse to be true. This sort of thing is Southern and it unfolds in its own time.

Jasper Johns Souvenir 1964

Down South one’s image is everything. One might be a cad, a derelict, a gentle person and a fool all in the same moment, but one might also be forgiven for such emotional and declarative outbursts as long as one’s “truth” remains sacrosanct. The image of the ignorant, roaring redneck is undeniably a Southern truism, but it’s been my experience that there are all kinds of deeply affecting Southerners. And that’s probably why the South has produced great writers and great painters, and in many cases great friends. And when I’m lonely and tired I find that Jasper Johns’ work – always immaculately conceived – is a touchstone for a lived reality and a very old truth. These paintings are my souvenir – a token of remembrance and regard. And all one has to do is turn on the light to return to red, blue and yellow. Even at this moment when Jasper’s work feels like something from the Ancien Regime and my regard for that work seems to be nothing more than my own pure nostalgia, I am still taken by their shifty honesty.

Jasper Johns Between the Clock and the Bed 1982-83

As one grows older one’s image begins to slip and one reveals oneself without knowing. If you’ve ever read an interview or seen Jasper on camera – this language may sound slightly stiff and familiar. It is a gambit, a way to speak of real things without revealing real things. If one is between the clock and the bed it would seem we are talking about one’s own appointment with oblivion. And these paintings about death and life are among Jasper’s most abstracted works. Funny that. A nearly pure abstract painting done to confront one’s own mortality. This work is, of course, based on a Northerner’s painting of his confrontation with mortality. In that painting we see an old man standing between a grandfather clock and a bed covered with a quilt of cross hatched splendor. But in this painting Edvard’s image has been subsumed by Jasper’s process creating yet another very different kind of image. Decades of drawing and painting have covered over the old man with this final abstraction of a new old man. This painting is now our souvenir – of what exactly? Life, death, sex, impotence, time and painting? More? Joy, regret, fear, understanding and acceptance? The black and white world has won. But there in the lower right are a few small memories of red, yellow and blue. More southern souvenirs.

Traveling South

I’ve always thought that Southern European painting has a more life affirming feel than Northern painting. Same subjects different “feel.” What I find distressing at times is that the US has always been more comfortable embracing the feel of Northern European Art. We fetishize the Modern cleanliness, the geometric coolness and the certainty of mathematical outcomes. As Americans Clem’s admonishment for reductive purity and decorative expression still rush through our thoughts – especially in the market place. Even Andy’s repetitions are tastefully aesthetic, the slight variations adding charm and nuance to the perfection of the minimalist rectangle. Nothing too open or sexy or impulsive let’s say. This may have something to do with the fact that the US is still enamored with “plain” values – at least in public practice. But like all humans – we’re very different and very much the same behind closed doors.

Picasso Nude on a Pillow 1967

Which brings us to Late Picasso who was anything but “plain”. His reputation in the 1960s was in tatters. Everyone thought he was mad – that these painting were made by a senile old man. So the art world moved on. Here in the US at the very same time that Picasso painted this “nude” it was High Times Hard Times in SoHo. Abstract Mannerism was just beginning to take hold of the painters who were desperate to get out from under the yoke of Greenberg’s formalism. Meanwhile in the south of France Picasso was painting a world of work which still creates problems for people. An old man, a raging erotic impulse in the face of death, and a careless attitude towards formal issues and processes seems worlds away from Greenberg’s button down Neo-Modernism or Abstract Mannerism’s thoughtful endgame.

Picasso Self Portrait

Images. Abstraction’s continuing problem. What to do with images, especially in a world awash in them. What’s instructive about the old man is how natural and how matter-of-fact his imagery is. Not like a Coke bottle, but like a conversation one has with another. These images are about the furtive glances, the moments of recognition, and the feel of life going on. And that “other” in his painting has nothing to do with the “viewer,” the gallery goer, or the collector. These works are after all intimate, personal, revealing – Southern. One of my favorite things at the Picasso Museum in Antibes was this Self Portrait. The stubbly beard, the hollow eyes, the funky hat and that weird sea creature in a shell somehow crawling through his ear and infesting his brain. It stuck with me. The picture was also hung on a wall down a little corridor between two bigger, grander galleries. It was intimate. What I really like about the painting is that if you look long enough you’ll discover that this image is nothing but honest. And it can’t get any better than that.

Text and Image are the Same

Michael Riedel Powerpoint Untitled 2013

“Is it, I asked Riedel, a commentary on the human condition? Are we all just information addicts, churning out bad Xeroxes of something we once saw or heard? Or is the redoubled emptiness a more personal expression: the result of looking inside his own personal artistic soul and finding, well, nothing? … There’s no content being produced, because I’m in the first generation that grew up digital,” Riedel replied, “we are just transferring all the time: tape, CDs and now the clouds.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “The self-reference is because I am the system. The technique is mainly carrying something from here to there, sometimes with a car, sometimes by making a recording. . . .” And sometimes, as with the new HTML paintings, with the click of a mouse.” Adam Fisher on Michael Riedel, May 1, 2012.

“I am the system.” This is a long way from “I am nature.” We’ve known for a very long time now that the artist’s hand, the old ideas of abstraction, drawing and painting, can no longer exist as avant-garde forms. We are either critics or acolytes, and we’ve remained tied to our Modernist past through an end-of-history nostalgia. And that may be why there’s so much “expressionist” abstraction, provisional painting and zombie formalism clogging up the instagram algorithms. It’s difficult to believe any longer that we are “nature” and that what we paint is “natural” – especially when what we’re doing is a learned activity rather than one which we created – especially as we fling and pour and slather exactly like Jackson or Bill or Helen once did. But what does it mean to be the system? What does it mean to transfer all the time? What happens when the media we use is all the same code – one as good as another?

Michael Riedel Untitled Powerpoint 2013

“Riedel has long used extant texts as material for his projects. For Frieze (CMYK)(2007) he reprinted the May 2007 issue of the titular art magazine in each of four standard printing colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). The four reproductions became limited-edition artist books, and were exhibited with related postcards and posters. Audio book (Meckert) (2010) is a recording of a text printed in another one of Riedel’s artist books, with every word rearranged alphabetically and spit back out in a computerized robot voice. “Text and image are the same to me,” he explained during a lecture at Zwirner on Feb. 2, “because both are made with a recording machine.” Leigh Ann Miller on Michael Riedel February 4, 2011.

40 Year Rule

“And so in a Darwinian system, and certainly the art world is a Darwinian system, one can not replicate standard practice, one can not replicate standard canon. In other words if it [the artwork] does it disappears. So everything has to deviate.Everything that you make has to deviate from standard canon or standard practice. And the easiest way to do this I would recommend and Rauschenberg would recommend, is to change the canon. Go back about 40 years and find somebody that you really like and steal shit from them. Because they’re history now and you can steal shit from them. This is a process that I have followed and certainly Rauschenberg followed and its called going back to the moment right before it started sucking.” Dave Hickey The God Ennui 2009.

DeKooning & Brown @ Pivot Art Gallery 2015

“I was in art school at the Slade around 1989, and I distinctly remember looking at a catalogue of de Kooning’s work with some friends. Our game was to cover up the whole painting and look at just a detail, and marvel over the fact that even a detail would be an extraordinary painting. I don’t want to do the work a disservice in saying that every detail could be a painting, because they are incredibly well thought out. It was just realizing that every square inch of the canvas had a life, an energy and a strength. It was exhilarating to see somebody use paint in a way that appeared to be free, but obviously there was this great measure of control. Looking at him so closely, I feel like a student again in that I realize what I’ve been after is to combine a similar level of freedom with the incredible control that results in such tight, amazing paintings.” Cecily Brown on DeKooning 2012.

“When the new season of “Mad Men” began, just a few weeks ago, it carried with it an argument about whether the spell it casts is largely a product of its beautifully detailed early-sixties setting or whether, as Matthew Weiner, its creator, insisted, it’s not backward-looking at all but a product of character, story line, and theme. So it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)” Adam Gopnik, Forty Year Itch.

Joy in Repetition

Andy Warhol Shadows Installation Bilbao 2016
“I like things to be exactly the same over and over again” —Andy Warhol

Up on the mic repeating two words
over and over again
Was this woman he had never noticed before
he lost himself in the
Articulated manner in which she said them.
These two words, a little bit behind the beat.
I mean just enough to turn you on.
For every time she said the words another one of his doubts were gone…
She only said the words again
and it started to rain
rain,
rain,
rain.
Two words falling between the drops
and the moans of his condition
Holding someone is truly believing
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
She said
love me
love me,
What she say?
She say
love me,
love me.
Prince – Joy in Repetition, 1990

Donald Judd Untitled 1992

“For [Donald Judd] there was no mythology about the beauty of the stroke that came from the hand of the artist. This work, like all of Judd’s work from this time, was made by a fabricator in a shop. Art was a matter-of-fact thing. It wasn’t going to tell you anything about Donald Judd’s soul.
The idea of repetition goes hand in hand with that. If you have one unit used again and again and again that goes against the idea of Romantic expression, or personal subjective sentiment. In fact, for Judd what mattered was the placement of these pieces, very deliberately sandwiched between walls, floor and ceiling. There is nothing inherently magical about any of these units. This is one of the very important contributions that Judd’s art makes. Its really about space as much as it is about object.” Anne Temkin on Donald Judd, MOMA.

Hollis Frampton, #3 (Painting Getty Tomb) 1958-62

In the US repetition is truth. And truth is found through repetition. It’s the circular logic of American understanding. It doesn’t really matter what the original premise might be. It’s the repetition that makes that original premise true. You can hear it in your minister’s exhortations. You can see it on CNBC’s OCTOBOX. You can order it from the Applebees menu. If one can reach the same conclusions each and every time – it’s proof positive that the thing repeated is true, the thing repeated is real. Truth is Fordism, a thousand points of light, and weapons of mass destruction. We repeat and repeat and repeat until the erotics of certainty gives birth to the real.

Glaser: Another problem. If you make so many canvases alike, how much can the eye be stimulated by so much repetition?
Stella: That really is a relative problem because obviously it strikes people different ways. I find, say, Milton Resnick as repetitive as I am, if not more so. The change in any given artist’s work from picture to picture isn’t that great. Take a Pollock show. You may have a span of 10 years, but you could break it down to three or four things he’s done. In any given period of an artist, when he’s working on a particular interest or problem, the paintings tend to look a lot alike. It’s hard to find anyone who isn’t like that. It seems to be the natural situation. And everyone finds some things more boring to look at than others.
Frank Stella in conversation with Bruce Glaser and Don Judd, 1966.