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Scruffy Dog Days

The last few days for McKenzie’s “Color as Structure” which closes August 2. If you’re still in town and haven’t seen the show you should stop by to have a gander! There’s some wonderful abstraction on view! Corio and Voisine                     Paul Corio and Don Voisine on view at McKenzie Fine Art

George Hofmann on Abstract Critical!

If you have a moment you should check out the always magnificent George Hofmann’s recent article on Gestural Painting written for Abstract Critical. George is one of my favorite painters/theorists/artists working today, and he’s asking all the right questions of us and of his own work. His main point of finding some emotion, some humanity and individuality in our work is not lost on me. The comments section also has some very interesting arguments about abstraction and emotion, gesture and authenticity. Highly recommended reading!

“The significant problem we are facing is the want of real emotional understanding: we are not versed in this in society, and not schooled in its precepts in art; sadly, nothing much today prepares us to perceive in depth – except, perhaps, at moments of true horror in life, when we face the inexplicable and the unfathomable – in art not at all.”

Kwik Links

My good friend Paul Corio is included in a new show at McKenzie Fine Art on Orchard Street.

“Color as Structure examines the ways artists use deliberate color choices to create sculptural or architectonic space in their work, as well as exploring aspects of weight, movement, rhythm, light and optical vibration. Some artists employ systems to determine color choice, as in Paul Corio’s use of winning thoroughbreds from New York racetracks to determine the position of the colors within each pinwheel in his painting…”

The opening is on Friday the 20th – See you there!

New Article On Abstract Critical

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As a kind of addendum to our last post on Untethered I’ve put together an article discussing the Modernist Artist. I wanted to expand some of those ideas just a bit and ask a few direct questions about our involvement in the “systems” of art. It’s entitled The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist.

“We have no interest in overcoming the Modern, moving beyond it, challenging its theoretics. We do not ask questions, we do not take the 20th Century legacy to task for its failings, for its obvious capitulations, its formulaic visual engagements.”

Part II of Stasis will be up soon! Untethered continues…

Untethered – Stasis – Part I

“What looked one day like the end proved on the next day to have been only the beginning. Nothing could have been more ingeniously designed to maximize the suffering, and also to insure that as few as possible escaped the common misfortune. The fortunate speculator who had funds to answer the first margin call presently got another and equally urgent one, and if he met that there would still be another. In the end all the money he had was extracted from him and lost.”
“The Great Crash of 1929,” John Kenneth Galbraith, 2009 ed.

Oops, I think that clip may have been a bit more recent… Well, the truth is the economic world wasn’t all that different at the beginning of the 1930s. The markets had blown up at the end of October 1929, and there was a new economic reality to be faced, a “new normal” for how the world would conduct, well, not just business, but practically everything. Sure, stock markets had crashed before, and the economic consequences were tough, but this was the first Globally connected crash, the first to really create a monetary domino effect. Unprecedented.

All through the Roaring Twenties, especially during the last couple of years leading up to crash, the rising “wealth” of the soaring stock markets was a foregone conclusion in the minds of the general public. Wealth and the accumulation of wealth had become the golden sexy abstraction, the blood-earned “gift” bestowed upon the Modern movement. Those investors that were buying into the game expected fattening balance sheets and rosy futures. It was their “due.” That’s how an abstraction works, especially Modern ones. They redistribute reality, mitigate it, reformat it while simplifying, minimizing, and outright excising any contrary realities. A powerful abstraction creates its own “complete” systemic reality. Its ease and promise will flourish in the minds of its believers. Right up ’til that moment when the entropic nature of lived experience creates an anomaly, a glitch. Then the abstraction falters and what was a once considered a virtue of the system, what was once the point of the abstraction, flips and becomes virulently “real.” We call this a “Black Swan.” Actually, the anomaly comes down to matters of statistical imbalances. Users of the abstraction greedy for more of a good thing will manipulate the rules of the abstraction, customize and game the abstraction for their own benefit. Additionally, as more “users” join the abstraction to participate in the “good times” resources feeding the abstraction begin to tighten. This means more customization of the abstraction to accommodate the new “users,” etc. One feeds into the other. Malthusian complications ensue. Entropy takes hold. The abstraction blows up.

Diminishing Returns

If you watch the clip above you’ll see someone with their “hair on fire.” Well, what hair there is anyway. This is how our sweaty, nervous traders were reacting in 2008 as the Reverend’s pin was poised to pop our huge debt-inflated market bubble – a once magnificent money-making abstraction whipped up by Alan Greenspan and company. But the world was no less volatile and desperate back in ’29. Black Tuesday exploded after months and months of erratic gains and losses, unexpected sell-offs and buy-backs. This wild activity revealed the anomaly in the abstraction, and it hinted that all was not as perfectly “abstract” as was assumed. By the end of October, however, even those who were desperately trying to shore up the failing system, who were frantically holding on to the “reality” of the abstraction, had to admit that the jig was up. The entire market imploded flipping the once gilded economic construct into a new harsh, dark reality. Unlike our contemporary crash there were no “support systems” in place to shore up the resources feeding the abstraction. There was no bank of last resort to lend money to failing institutions, no FDIC to recover one’s savings, no Hank Paulson pulling a Godfather routine with the banking industry, no Bernanke TARP. No Postmodern net. Nope. At the time these kinds of contemporary systemic backups sounded very much like Communist economic policies (still do to a number of market purists,) and after the establishment of the USSR in ’17 anything that looked slightly pinkish made those in Capitalist power positions itch. In ’29 those very same Capitalists still believed that laissez faire controls would fix what had been broken, and the governments in thrall to the flow of those finances staunchly held up that particular party line. At least for a little while. In other words the first thing that the powers-that-be did to shore up the collapsing markets and imploding abstraction was absolutely nothing. And as they continued to hold to this course of ineptitude the common folk, the hoi polloi, began to lose everything; jobs, savings, homes, and mostly, hope. This part of the Modern era came to be known as the “Great Depression,” and even today the mention of that “thing” can still send cold shivers down the spines of middle class families saddled with mortgages, car payments, college tuitions and health insurance premiums, or as it has come to be known, the “American Dream.”


What I find really interesting about Cramer’s televised rant is the moment when Postmodernism, our era of abstraction, steps in. I’m not talking about the very real display of human anger, panic and fear – there was plenty of that going on back in the Modern thirties. Nor is it the terrible temper tantrum of a privileged Baby Boomer experiencing the black impurity of his abstraction as it implodes before his eyes. These are tried and true emotional responses to stress and fear, and these kinds of emotions have been happening to the human race ever since we stood erect. No. The Postmodern moment happens at the very end of the piece when we are presented with an authoritative disclaimer, or as I like to call it, the POMO “deus ex machina.” Basically the disclaimer provides absolution – says that what we’ve just witnessed is someone’s opinion, someone’s subjectivity. This is typical of the way our Postmodern theoretics constantly eviscerates any shared realities, undermines the presence of a thing by refocusing our attention not on the thing itself, but on the spaces around the thing. It is the way we keep abstractions, even failing ones, right on abstracting. The contextual disclaimer splices the thing out of the picture so to speak, and the thing as it is, in this case the problem with the market, is not really the focus of our attention. Instead we look at the “dressings” of the moment – the power relationship between the man and the woman, the media programming running through the obviously fake set decoration and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen, the “performance” of the “actors,” the political, social, cultural, and sexual associations that unwind through these contexts. We are constantly directed to what isn’t rather than what is. In that way we can be comfortable with our own interpretations of the abstraction.

The Postmodern world excised “grand narratives” or “meta-narratives,” destroyed objective realities. Reality does not exist outside of the confines of the abstraction. The “ever-present” disclaimer is, quite literally, a stopgap in the abstraction. And it is employed to contain the anomaly. For instance when our markets finally collapsed on Damien’s Day in September of 2008, the system, the abstraction, hiccuped, stopgaps were employed and the resources running the abstraction were re-booted. By January the abstraction had changed nearly all the accounting rules making the anomalies within the abstraction disappear. By March of 2009 Citibank, whose balance sheets had plummeted to junk status during the slide, suddenly showed profits in the billions of dollars even as its stock remained in the single digits. This is an abstraction of immense power and epic resiliency. Theater of Cruelty indeed…

Thirties – Modern Apogee

In 1930 the Great War generation was having to face diminishing economic prospects and sudden devastating poverty. There were also growing military threats from some very nasty reactionary abstractionists. The USA, Peru, Columbia, Spain, Italy, Germany, the USSR, China and Japan were all experiencing a steeped rise in fiery Nationalist dogma and revolutionary rhetoric while threatening white-knuckle expansionist ambitions. Modern theoretics based in purity, of means, of spirit, of technology, of race, and of privilege had flipped, become something far darker. The leaders of these strong arm political parties were very busy pumping up their bewildered and frightened populations just as the air was escaping from the ballooned economies of the world. Desperate, fearful people do desperate, fearful things, as we all know. And by the mid-thirties a new and dangerous Modern industry based on political, cultural, and quite frankly, racial scapegoating was in full swing. The Modern World was, once again, about to become a very dangerous place to be.

What was new about these splintering abstractions, what was newly Modern in fact, was that all of this activity, these “happenings,” were being followed by the world, for the first time, in what we now call “real time.” New electric technologies captured and broadcasted the vindictive public rhetoric right into the private sanctuary of people’s homes. One could turn on the radio and hear what was happening in the world as it unfolded from the comfort of one’s easy chair. Movie house newsreels and the ubiquity of picture magazine formats brought images of the world right into one’s hands seemingly overnight. In this new culture where public and private were starting to merge people began to discover that Modernity was what one lived with, began the day with, and more important, Modernity was now the last thing one encountered before going to bed at night. The electrified world was creating a new kind of Modern human being, informed, connected, dream-like and surprisingly pliable, infinitely malleable.

The Stasis of Surrealism

“I think the art world is definitely already going in this direction, and my auction is just a fast-forward,” Hirst intended to enact a democratisation of the art market. He explains: “It’s very difficult to buy a work in a gallery, you walk into the gallery, you get put on a waiting list by an intimidating woman or something and they want to know who you are.”
 Damien Hirst, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008.

In the 1930s’ Art World Surrealism continued to dictate the actions and aesthetic decisions of the avant garde, and Modernism as a once vibrant, daring theoretical artistic movement, stood defiantly still. In this way the thirties became a decade of retrenchment, especially as the stock markets continued to flatten and the unemployed began to multiply. Money dried up faster than a flash rain in the Mojave. It became extremely difficult for artists with new ideas to find collectors and patrons, and these new artists found bohemia all that much more difficult to navigate. You can bet that during these tight years “many a flower was born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” The tried and true avant-garde that came up during the teens and twenties, however, were still fashionable, still financially viable. Those who had been invited to the parties in the ’20s were still being invited in the ’30s. In fact there are very few new faces, new ideas, new styles developing in the Modern canon during the ’30s. How could there be? Innovation, especially in Capitalist systems, needs seed money, and in the thirties no one with money was seeding anything, not in Society, not in the Economy and not in the Art World.

We have a somewhat similar cultural experience happening today with the “seed money” being directed at a very particular kind of art. And this became apparent in 2008 not too long after Cramer’s meltdown. Our static art moment catalyzed, became systemic with Damien Hirst’s massive sale. This auction happened on the very day when the storied investment bank Lehmann Brothers went tets up. As panic set in and the value of the market abstraction deflated a group of exceedingly wealthy oligarchs were bidding up Damien’s works to unprecedented values – hundreds of millions of dollars. Damien’s Day was the most awesome moment in recent cultural history, a watershed like no other. The sale of these luxury goods had absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics or theoretics, nothing to do with way culture had been advanced in the past. Up until this point an artwork’s value was assessed through its cultural significance, whether it was aesthetically daring or vibrantly influential. The value of Art, up until this point, had to be vetted by other artists, by critics, by historians, by institutions. On Damien’s Day the way an artwork was valued, the way it was quantified, was completely untethered from Art History. In other words the Art Object was reprogrammed, the rules were changed so that the object’s value resided in its economic viability rather than its cultural significance. Damien’s Day marks the moment when we witnessed a repudiation of everything theoretically, historically Modern. This is also Postmodernism’s apotheosis, its final encapsulation and evisceration of the Modern abstraction, the actual endpoint of the thirties’ legacy. In fact it marks the end of the entire legacy of Modern Art beginning with Manet. This is the moment of the “flip.”

In the Art World of 2008 suddenly every last Art Gamer (artist, critic, gallerist, curator and collector) with half an online brain realized that the Postmodern program had been resolutely “fixed,” “encrypted.” Specificity of intention and innovation were now only possible through the sanction of auction house cabals intent on dealing with an economic “product” containing Modernist (rather than Modern or Postmodern) Art. And this is the difference that many of us have refused to accept as we struggle and moan in our studios. We no longer make Modern Art or Postmodern Art, but Modernist Art – a radicalized economic based art designed for market participation rather than aesthetic/theoretical innovation. As a very specific luxury product it remains static, locked into the Postmodern economies, technologies and programs of the Business World. Art as it was once known, as it was experienced by artists and their communities, no longer exists.

For our purposes the Thirties are the key to understanding how Modernism and Postmodernism became Modernist. It’s where we’ll find a new direction for Abstraction and for Painting. And we will continue to look deeper into this amazing, frightening decade, making comparisons to our own time and looking for answers. For now I leave you with this…

“You Did That.”

The greatest work of the 1930s and perhaps of the century was painted by Picasso, the reigning grand master of Modern Art. He had been given the task of making work for the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris. Pablo took as his subject the bombing of the small town of Guernica in Spain. The attack by the Fascists had killed and wounded hundreds of innocent, unsuspecting townsfolk going about their market day business. Once again the efficient horrors of Modern technological war came crashing back into view, a frightening premonition for what would come. Since its exhibition Guernica and its creation have grown to mythic proportions in our imaginations. Its visual power, its cultural impact is unrivaled in the 20th Century. It set something off in Picasso as well, and he experienced a new flurry of creativity in its wake. He began to examine himself, his own life, his own actions through very uncomfortable emotions. These new angular, acidic paintings unraveled his intimate life. They came to look more violent, more cruel, more specific and more unforgiving. It is Picasso at his very best and his most revealing.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973
Pablo Picasso, “Weeping Woman,” 1937. Oil paint on canvas, 608 x 500 mm, Tate Collection.

Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” one of my favorite paintings from this time, is about his relationship with Dora Maar, his discomfort with himself and his complicity with the Modern world. She clutches a handkerchief, dabbing her crying eyes, her mouth gnashing at its corner. The angular, spiky clothing and the strange, folded hat look ill-fitting, sharp, uncomfortable. A too-tight earring painfully shuts her ear against a verbal barrage. She’s made up her eyes and brows, carefully combed her hair, obviously dressed for something “else.” Dora wasn’t expecting this violent surge of unrestrained feeling and the “mask” is slipping. This is what Pablo sees, this is what he experiences, this is the outcome of his own actions, his own provocations. Picasso, an underrated colorist, uses it to intensify the emotional impact of the work. The hat in primaries, solid, heavy and sharp against the secondary greens, purples, oranges and acidy yellows, creates a clash of hue. It heightens the angst in the image, makes this particular domestic spat something more – an existential failing, a terrible sign of fear, regret, and anger, an image of an oppressive and turbulent love affair. Picasso once said that women were “suffering machines” and Dora would always be his “weeping woman.” And indeed, she is.

Pablo painted these kinds of rigorously intimate images all through his life. He abstracted his visual world to emphasize the conceptual tension between line and form, flatness and illusion. But these thoroughly Modern conventions were merely tools used to define the reality of his own experiences. In the end Picasso was the oldest kind of artist working among the Moderns. More than any other painter of the day Pablo was able to create a visceral connection between abstraction, figurative imagery and his own emotional life. Rather than physical size or material precedence he sought out and encountered a singular, powerful image, and through it, a deeper connection to the history of painting. Over and over again Picasso’s paintings would come to grips with the fact that there would never be an escape from the primitive power that a distinctive image can hold over us. His paintings would never be pure objects for distracted contemplation, never sounding boards for spiritual issues, never an easy chair for a tired businessman. They would always be a confrontation, a reckoning. And in this way Picasso would never be wholly, truly Modern, never fit comfortably into the abstraction of Modernity even as he helped to define what Modern Abstraction would look and feel like. I dare say that in our Postmodern Art World this kind of understanding, personification and confrontation with abstraction is truly an heretical idea – an idea that demands that we purposely not be Modern, that we not accept the Modern as an a priori assumption when we create an Abstraction. Picasso, the Modern Prometheus, still has much to teach us all. What this small, powerful painting shows us is that our images do not weep.

Untethered – Stasis continues….

2013 – A Year in Abstraction by Brett Baker

Brett Baker of Painter’s Table has written a really terrific year end round-up for Abstract Critical chronicling the continuing issues that face abstraction today. Brett kindly mentions Henri’s post on Malevich and early Modern Abstraction entitled “Untethered – Spirit.”
I’m very grateful to Brett, Painters Table, and to Abstract Critical, and I send them Thanks! from Henri.


Untethered – Blur

The twenties for the most part were a blur, and by blur I mean that everything in society, culture, politics and art was consolidating and speeding forward at a breakneck pace. The War was over, but the ramifications of its outcome were still being felt. The “winning” side had decided to punish the German people so badly that they would never again have the will or means to begin another war in Europe. This was done through exorbitant reparations and stringent economic sanctions, basically assuring that the German economy would languish and die. There was no understanding that causing such instability would be disastrous to the new German government, their very fragile economy and fractured society. Shortsighted views of human nature would prove to be one of the major reasons for the rapid rise of Nationalism, particularly among the classes most affected by the economic fallout. In fact during the 1920s fervent Nationalism was on the rise all through Europe, and it came hand in hand with the so-called “Return to Order,” a nostalgic “movement” looking to reclaim a “golden age” of respectability and social cohesiveness. You have to understand that there were all kinds of Modern-looking organizations spouting reactionary blinkered beliefs and outright prejudices. Italy, Spain and Germany were all experiencing the rise of dangerous warrior classes which were made up of men and women ready to fight and die for warped ideals of purity and power. (And these two things, purity and power, seem to come up again and again when we look at the Modern world.) It wasn’t long before the “right of purity” rhetoric began to be taken seriously, especially as Western countries fanned out across the world looking to exploit new trade routes, newly discovered natural resources and cheap (slave) labor. Modern modes of travel made such economic expansion possible. Southeast Asia, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East, were all becoming more and more important to the life of Western Civilization, and a real nasty bit of competition began to manifest among those countries. The supremacy of one’s race, country or alliances made foreign intrigues seem like a natural right. Needless to say dominos were being set in place.

In Russia the new Communist government was starting to look a little less like a Marxist Republic and lot more like a strong man dictatorship. They were trying to consolidate the republic while fighting famine, armed resistance funded by European governments and civil dissent in the failing cities. The country was fracturing under the strain. Stalin saw this as an opportunity and came to power through a “house cleaning” that was miles away from anything in the Communist Manifesto and more like a chapter right out of Caligula’s diaries. All the while the USSR was busy building its manufacturing and economic capabilities in an effort to become a Modern technological world power. Russia was also making inroads into China exporting the “revolution” to a country torn by poverty, civil war and deep political unrest. It was in the 1920s that Mao began his rise by using constantly shifting military/political alliances to gain and consolidate power. In the United States Prohibition was instituted with an amendment to the Constitution. Suddenly the entire country had become dry. No alcohol served here, at least not over the counter. The new law transformed the once local underground, creating a nationwide shadow economy run by a newly empowered and very organized crime syndicate. A whole new chapter of illicit social business was practically formed overnight. America’s Puritan heart, once again, guided the nation into a Protestant world of sin and redemption, good and evil, right and wrong. All of these changes show that a radical reformation of society was happening around the world, all at once, so it seemed.

In the meantime the social and cultural worlds were exploring new indulgent experiences. The twenties, as it turned out, were about to turn into the Roaring Twenties. Stock markets soared, money was on the ground, the Arts flourished, people got loaded, laid and languished. The twenties presaged the sixties; lots of sex, drugs, but instead of Rock and Roll, they had Jazz. The rich became famous and the famous tried to get rich. Youth was sexy, skirts were short and the Charleston was all the rage. There was the rise of Hollywood, the proliferation of air travel, radio and transatlantic telephone communications making the world seem smaller. Photography was becoming ubiquitous along with the rise of magazine publishing. Advertising was quickly becoming an art form. In fact you could say that everything that our society esteems today came from the consolidation and institutionalization of Modernity and Modernism in the 1920s. Paris was still the place to be especially for American artists with avant garde ambitions. Most all of them had buggered off to Europe where the moral climate was more conducive to bohemian culture. African Americans found Paris more receptive, less overtly racist and absolutely mad for their cultural contributions. American writers and artists gathered at Gertrude Stein’s to learn, to engage and to make waves. The truth is that America’s Lost Generation was not so much lost as they were banished from Puritan America. So, they all went to the city where they could find encouragement, get involved in the conversation and mix it up with other like minded souls.

At the beginning of the twenties Paris was busy looking for the next big thing, the next party. This is what happens, or at least it used to, in the cultural capitals of the world. Dada was losing its edge looking a bit tired and predictable to a new generation searching to define themselves. Andre Breton, a theorist, author and publisher, had been a part of that earlier Dada crowd, a kind of Johnny-Come-Lately to the movement. He was eloquent, combative and provocative. He liked the experimental nature of Dada, but found that it left something out of the mix. Dada was an entertaining and clever critique of culture and society, but little else. Its artists were content to point out the absurdity of Life and Art without risking themselves in a real way. Breton thought that there should be something more to it. Something that could and should provide a deeper experience of the strange fractured nature of Modern existence. He wanted art to explain and exploit the feelings and needs of the Modern individual, to examine our very primitive urges and desires. Needless to say when looking at the problem of Art from this perspective Sigmund Freud’s theories were liberating. His work delivered insights and solutions for the way that people lived their lives in the highly bureaucratic, highly stylized Modern world. Breton began to experiment with Freud’s ideas of consciousness and unconscious living, the dream life, the darker more shaded world of human passion. After all, this is what the 1920s were all about, the liberation of the Id, the release and confrontation of one’s inner desires and demons after facing death and destruction.

“It was only fitting that Freud should appear with his critique on the dream. In fact, it is incredible that this important part of psychic activity has still attracted so little attention. (For, at least from man’s birth to his death, thought presents no solution of continuity; the sum of dreaming moments – even taking into consideration pure dream alone, that of sleep – is from the point of view of time no less than the sum of moments of reality, which we shall confine to waking moments.) I have always been astounded by the extreme disproportion in the importance and seriousness assigned to events of the waking moments and to those of sleep by the ordinary observer. Man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all at the mercy of his memory, and the memory normally delights in feebly retracing the circumstance of the dream for him, depriving it of all actual consequence and obliterating the only determinant from the point at which he thinks he abandoned this constant hope, this anxiety, a few hours earlier. He has the illusion of continuing something worthwhile. The dream finds itself relegated to a parenthesis, like the night. And in general it gives no more counsel than the night.”
Andre Breton, “The First Surrealist Manifesto.” 1924

This kind of thinking was taking the cultural world, particularly the younger artists, by storm. It seemed to open a new unchartered world of illicit passions and theoretical defiance. There was something Romantic and sexy about the inner struggle. Paintings, both abstract and representational, took on the appearance of “dreamscapes,” weird and woolly depictions of the absurdity of Modern life, Modern passions. Breton hoped that this work would be made through “pure expression,” a purity that came about from thought without reason, existence without control, passion without morality. He was after the very life of passions stirring beneath the facade of civilized existence. For Breton the unconscious is where art came from, where art was made. All through this series we’ve come across this mania by the early Modernists to hook into “purity,” and it seems it was also rife in society as well – purity of blood, race, country, allegiance, expression, art, culture – you name it. And it’s the idea of “purity” that the later Postmodernists would take to task.

The_Elephant_CelebesThe Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 125.4 x 107.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London. 1921.

The painting above by Max Ernst is classic Surrealism. Sexy Maxy hits all the highlights; machine culture, classical mythology, Modern abstraction, incidental lighting, antithetical collage, empty dreamscape. It’s strangeness comes from the dissimilar and fragmented imagery all clustered together in the same pictorial non-space (or as we might say today Junk Space.) It’s a “grab bag of arch references” all designed to make the viewer question what’s going on in the picture, a “Where’s Waldo” of unconscious distraction. There is no “correct” viewing, no “point” explicitly laid out in the picture itself, just an image that cuts into our preconceived notions of propriety and comfort. The logic of A to B to C has been deliberately thrown into turmoil. Nothing clicks into place, and it’s up to the viewer to find connections and meanings in their own subconscious, their own understanding of the meaning of images. (A very similar use of “meaning” would become a prominent strategy in much of Postmodern painting.) Additionally, Surrealism was heavily sexual filled with anxiety and pain. There are plenty of references like this in Ernst’s painting, and I’ll leave you to it. Death also plays a role in the “unconscious” life, and I dare say that you’ll find that referenced in this painting as well.

“Most of the pain we experience is of a perceptual order, perception either of the urge of unsatisfied instincts or of something in the external world which may be painful in itself or may arouse painful anticipations in the psychic apparatus and is recognised by it as “danger.” The reaction to these claims of impulse and these threats of danger, a reaction in which the real activity of the psychic apparatus is manifested, may be guided correctly by the pleasure-principle or by the reality-principle which modifies this.”
Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” 1920.

It is perception itself that so many of the Surrealists latched on to. Where does perception begin? What do we perceive? How do we perceive? How does it define our reality? For the Surrealists our “expected” ways of seeing and understanding the world were up for questioning. But even more pressing was how one’s perception would make one feel, how it could make one react. The uncertainty, the fragility is paramount in Surrealist work. It’s why so many of them screwed around with the standard techniques of realism and illusion. Nothing is as it seems. This feeling was part of the realization that humanity was becoming more expendable with every head count, with every charge over the trenches, every shelled village. The Surrealists were desperate to understand the moment, the aftermath of survival. They were fascinated by the ferocity that lay within the human psyche and how quickly it merged with technology, how quickly it accepted these mechanical extensions, how quickly it overlooked the consequences. In Fritz Lange’s movie Metropolis, these themes are all played out. The faceless legions servicing the machines, the melding of technology and human life, the tragic consequences of Modernity itself. And for painting Picasso’s ferocious masked prostitutes were the order of the day, more so than the clarity and order of Malevich’s geometries or Matisse’s nostalgic reveries. Demoiselles D’Avignon, would be the precedent for Surrealism, a precedent that Breton freely promoted.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.07.34 AM“Le Signe de la mort”
Paris, January–mid-February 1927
Oil and aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4” (73 x 92 cm)
Private collection. Courtesy MaxmArt, Mendrisio, SwitzerlandMaxmArt, Mendrisio, Switzerland. © 2008 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Truthfully, I can do without the melting watches, empty theatrical townscapes, and limp phallic hoses. But there is one painter that I think is truly wonderful. Miro was able to bridge the gap between process and psychology, experimenting with new forms and materials all through his career. He was particularly attuned to materials, to the way they worked in the paintings, the way the unconscious would immediately gravitate to the look and feel of things. In the show at MOMA a few years ago we got a taste of Miro’s experimental work. It looked and felt contemporary in every way, which I found a bit disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any stylistic distance between what I was looking at in the galleries of Chelsea and what was on the walls of MOMA, paintings made 80 years ago. How could that be? Truly, the only real difference was the scale. Where had we gone so wrong? Why had we not moved on? Seriously, if these had been 7 foot paintings made in Brooklyn two weeks ago they could easily have been featured at Gagosian and sold for scads of money. Oh well, c’est le vie, POMOs.

For now let’s have a look at this repro. First, there is the raw ground. Not many paintings of that time let the ground be in just this way. Miro’s scraped a brush lightly over it, just marring the pristine surface with a bit of white paint. There’s something about the beauty of raw linen, yes, like paint straight out of the can? But what’s really ‘new’ and antithetical to Modernism of the time is the composition itself, the spareness of the “things,” the “imagery” that’s collaged onto the painting. Here the abstract nature of process, the multiple meanings inherent in the happenstance of the forms, begins to play with our unconscious. We have to connect, engage our subjective lives to get meaning. The cryptic phrase over the red spill adds some heat to the picture, the cross and the number enigmatic and final somehow. Miro is letting the paint, the specific color, work like found objects, all the while directing us to mortality. It seems absurd, but Miro uses that, makes the absurd visually poetic. The spareness of this painting, the rawness of its means, are its beauty and its immediate power. No wonder Miro became the go-to guy for the Abstract Expressionists.

Consolidation and Acceptance

The Roaring Twenties were the decade when Modernity and Modernism finally gelled in the consciousness of society. This is how the world was going to look from that moment on. All of the experimentation and speculation had been done and now began the process of fleshing out this new life. We can also see the coming critique of Modernism, the beginning of a backlash for its failings. The Frankfurt School was formed. Husserl and Heidegger were the philosphers of the day. Adorno, Benjamin and Arendt were beginning their lives as thinkers. All of these writers would later become central figures in our understanding and practice of Postmodernism. Artaud was producing new plays at the Alfred Jarry. The Ballet Russe was working with Stravinsky. It’s really quite astounding, the depth and breadth of cultural progress! For the most part you could hang a sign at the beginning of the decade that says the 19th Century ends here. When we look back most of us working today have to understand that the basis of what we do, the very foundation of what we are as artists begins here - the need for “expression,” the questioning of perception, the reliance on materials and objects, the beginning of the age of the photograph, advertising culture. All of it.

I’ll end this post in 1931 with a bit more popular culture of the time. After the market crash and the start of the Fascist rise, the movie Frankenstein immediately invaded the imaginations of people around the world. Mary Shelley’s harsh Romantic story struck a chord. In the movie a “mad scientist” creates a man from dead body parts and brings him to life using technological wonders. The revived corpse then goes off to wreak havoc among the populace killing or maiming any and all who had a hand in his current damnation. The monster, feared though he was, was a victim, a tragic anti-hero of Modernity itself. People went nuts for this movie. I mean seriously nuts. It was a blockbuster. But for me the movie’s become a kind of turning point in my view of the Modern/Postmodern divide. You have to understand that by 1931 the survivors of the Great War generation were now middle aged with families of their own. The roaring 20s had been good for populations after all, and there was a bit of a baby boom. But the Great War was still there, still to be seen everywhere one went, not only in the remaining destruction and political intrigues, but in the people themselves. There were thousands and thousands of the “walking wounded” missing arms, legs, faces, still experiencing psychoses and illness, all of them trying desperately to fit back into the populations. All looking to get back home. If they didn’t have families they were shunted aside, left to fend for themselves, a veritable tribe of “monsters” reminding the world around them of the cost of Modernity. There were many artists greatly affected by this new world and they painted it, painted the brutality of it. Additionally, all through the 20s there was the spectre of things to come, that the so-called civilizing aspect of Modern society, were a sham. Beneath the calm face of acceptance and respectability monsters lurked. No one wanted to believe that such atrocities, such destruction could have ever happened or would every happen again. The refrain was said over and over in the media of the time. When Frankenstein appeared on the silver screens it hooked into those memories, hooked into the possibility that the ferocious destruction of life could happen again. The Monster could rise from the ashes and set the world on fire once more.

“You are in the wrong,” replied the fiend; “and instead of threatening, I am
content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not
shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and
triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities
me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those
ice-rifts and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands. Shall I respect man
when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and
instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude
at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable
barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I
will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and
chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear
inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor
finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.

Untethered continues…. 

Untethered – DONT SPIT

Dont Spit
Photograph from 1918.


World War I didn’t just end like it does in the movies. You know, warring folks lay down their arms, make their way back to families and friends and get on with it. No. After the Armistice in 1918 there was the matter of a devastated population being faced with, not only reconstruction, famine and trauma, but a massive health crisis of devastating virulence. I guess there’s nothing historically new about a plague. They had come and gone in Europe all through its history. Devastating diseases that had destroyed and remade societies. They would be formed and spread by the way people lived, built their cities, by the way they traded, did business. This particular disease was no different, formed by the very inception of Modernity itself. And just like the plagues of the past it ran through society like fire through a dry field, transferred and incubated in the rhythms of the populations.

The war had created this particularly nasty influenza in the foul trenches that ringed the conflicts of battle. Soldiers carried the disease along with them, like the lice and fleas that infested their clothes. The truth is that because of the way the war was fought, because of the nature of the combat, the virus went untreated, proved to be untreatable. Soldiers only lived long enough to pass the germ onto the new recruits. Modernity uses up natural resources quickly. By the end of the war the disease was killing people as efficiently as the bullets. And because of Modern economic trade, the new speed of travel – ships, trains, planes and automobiles – the virus went on a world tour. The disease spread from port to port, city to city following the pathways of railways and shipping lanes. It was called the Spanish Influenza, and was later found to be a subtype of H1N1, the progenitor of the avian variety we are battling today. Its virulent legacy continues, its DNA still among the populations of the world, waiting.

“Truth or Consequence”

Over 50 million souls, dead within 6 years, in addition to the 39 million killed in the war itself. From 1914 through 1920 populations around the world were purged. Devastation like this was inconceivable to the Modern generations, and for any precedent like it, one had to look to folkloric myth. And that is what began to happen among many of the Modern societies. There was a resurgence of old-time religions and end-of-the-world doomsayers. Ancient ethnic mythologies updated in contemporary guises began to become more popular among the masses. Modernity brought along new beaurocracies, Fordist productions and Global Economies, but it also incubated wild eyed prophets preaching purity, conformity and doom. These new reactionary movements were creating opportunities for a realignment of power and wealth. And it was here at the beginning of the 1920s that the consolidation and expansion of Modernity began.

How does one describe it? Governments were in turmoil, the balance of world power was shifting away from Europe to the “New World.” And it was the ones left standing, the survivors, that were left to make the Modern world work. Just think of the devastation, the clearing away of the future, the loss of so many lives, so much potential in such a short period of time. The world was in shock. As it was in the larger society so it was in the Art World. The old codgers of 19th Century Proto-Modernism had passed on leaving Picasso and Matisse, for the most part, the only game in town. A generation of young, bright things had been wiped out in the war, and those that survived the destruction were now seen as damaged goods. Apollinaire, Braque and many others returned from the war very changed human beings. But there was a new generation waiting to arrive with a very different relationship to and experience of Modernism. They were not part of the innovations, not part of the early arguments over the direction of painting and Art. This generation had grown of age with Modernity while experiencing the viciousness of these new technologies and theoretics. They had experienced their families, societies and countries torn to shreds by the war. And they had enough of it. For them, ALL of the old constructs of Art seemed ridiculous in this new world and a real break within Modernism itself began to form.

Old and New

About this time the left bank cognoscenti, those connected, showing and selling artists, began what would become known as the “Return to Order.” This was an attitude, an ideal, among the now-tired and worn out early Modernists, to refocus on Classical ideals, to give the experimentation and subversion of those early hard scrabble years a deeper connection to the art of the past. These Modernists buggered off to the Cote D’azur, the Blue Coast, and began to refine their work through the history and precedent of Mediterranean culture, in the leisurely lifestyles of “la vie en rose.” Bohemia done up at a vacation Mecca if you will. This new attitude towards art precedent was a conceptual reversal of Modernist practice – more accepting, less controversial, almost reactionary in its willingness to wear a toga. This attitude also points to the fact that the Modernists’ once radical theories had become ingrained in the larger culture. It’s the beginning of Picasso’s Neo-Classical bathing beauties and Matisse’s long retreat into the Oriental harem. It was also the beginning of Modernism’s institutionalization as an academic style, a natural consequence of the triumph of Modernity itself.

There was another side to this coin. And this was where artists who had had enough of Modernism, enough of the now “top-down” avant garde culture, enough of the economies of the art markets and the power of the gatekeepers, began to question the way things had been set up. For these artists, nothing, absolutely NOTHING, was correct any longer. Not Art, Language, Culture, Society, or Politics. In their eyes it was all a fat, nasty con game designed to suck one’s soul into the brand-spanking-new Modernist machine. The difference was that these artists professed that they could care less about being accepted by this system. And while the old guard eased into the Southern fog of bourgeois respectability these new kinds of anti-artists began to inhabit “the scene” back in the newly resurgent cities.

Dada, especially in Paris, was the first art movement to ever say “Fuck You” to the art establishment with café élan and outré style. Oh sure, there had been many contrarian movements in Art. But the first Dadaists were beautiful nihilists out to make life uncomfortable for those art world denizens who were happily polishing the brass of their own reputations. There was something louche and unexpected in its criticisms and provacative stances. Dada wasn’t specifically about anything; not painting or sculpting, composition or form, color or light, though it did use all those things. It wasn’t about manifestos or dogma, poetry or theatre, though it also tried its hand with those things as well. Dada, instead, was pure aesthetic opposition to cultural theoretics and social conventions in all their forms. It was ironic, campy, humorous, satirical, and at times, a deadly serious critique of accepted notions of existence in the Modern World.

Dada was an Art of anti-art gestures. It attacked the newly ingrained ideas of Modern beauty, the idea of “the artist,” the romantic ideal of genius driving that artist, the vaunted uses of bravura technique, classical training, historical study and institutional language. It latched onto the growing cult of Freudian psychology and saw advancing technology as a game of sexual power and surrogacy. Dada deconstructed language into sound, images into patterns, life, economics, politics and especially sex into Art. It made culture in all its forms wonderfully pointless. Yet behind this campy nihilism was the specter of the war and the creeping institutionalization of Modern life.


Francis Picabia, “Natures Mortes, Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt,” 1920, Toy monkey and ink on cardboard.

Here’s one of my favorite “paintings” of the early 20th Century. After war, after disease, before the “return to order,” before the “lost generation” got to partying, this is Francis Picabia’s devastating critique of the History of Painting as it stood, as it worked in the markets, as it emerged from the institutions. It’s a portrait of Rembrandt, the fallen god of art, Renoir, the kindly old icon of Modern culture now worth millions from his fantasies of a fleshy arcadia, and Cezanne, the radical iconoclast who suffered ignominy to birth Modernism itself. All the same portrait. No paint. Nothing but a collaged still life. Nothing but a goofy toy monkey and some hand written art historical references. This “painting” is vicious in ways we can not imagine today. In our blasé Postmodern art world we see work like this all the time. In fact we teach our students to make work just like this in Painting 101. But in 1920 no one in the art world had seen anything quite like it before. This “painting” carries with it the infamy of Duchamp’s urinal, a dig at the provenance of so-called artistic legitimacy. But this “painting” wasn’t directed only at the gatekeepers. This was an iron gauntlet raked across the face of every ambitious Modern painter making his or her way to the Left Bank. This “painting” was and is about the feckless artist, the careerist.

In one hand the monkey holds his tail pulled from between his legs; a useless prehensile limb, limp phallus, and rude come-on. The other is raised in welcome, calling attention to this ridiculous display. This masturbating monkey clearly wants to be known, to be seen, to be recognized! Around him floats the names of the famous and accepted. The monkey wants to be seen in this tradition. Picabia’s acerbic and bleak “Still Life,” says that this kind of art, these kinds of painters’ ambitions are pathetic, servile, absurd. They are Natures Mortes – Still Lives – quite literally, dead. This is exactly what the Modern World with its technological advancements and theoretical imperatives had done to Europe – created a society of servile monkeys, Natures Mortes, servicing the machines of commerce and government. And this was what had happened to the revolutionary Modern movement as well. The money had come in, professional careers had begun, schools had popped up left and right teaching Modernism, and the gatekeepers were now firmly in place. Picabia, the sublime, bleak fucker that he was, left us this sad, uncompromising, unflinching portrait of an artist’s reality in this new Modern Institutional World. For Picabia, these Artists were dead, stuffed toys of an establishment intent on promoting its own best interests.

“Death is a serious thing, eh?
One dies as a hero, or as an idiot, which is the same thing. The only
nonephemeral word is the word death. You like death for others.
Death, death, death.
Money’s the only thing that doesn’t die, it just goes off on a journey. It is
God, it is what is respected, the serious individual – money respects families.
Honor, honor to money; the man who has money is an honorable man.
Honor is bought and sold like a piece of ass. A piece of ass, a piece of ass
represents life like French fries, and all of you serious people, you will
smell worse than cow shit…”
Francis Picabia. “Manifeste Cannibale,” 1920, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.

The acerbic critique of Art and Life expressed in much of Picabia’s work of this time is, quite simply, breathtaking. He was fed up with the “importance” of Modernist practice, the failure of doctrinaire abstraction to move into the world in any real way. He began to direct his painting away from visual imagery towards language. In one of the most telling works of this period he signed his own signature, “Francis Picabia by Francis Picabia,” creating a kind of artistic brand more than 80 years before the idea of Branding existed in the art world. This smudgy drawing authorizes the authority of Picabia’s own authorization, which is a similar technical strategy, and quite frankly, aesthetic technique (pleasingly smeared lettering) used by a number of POMO artists working today. With his signature Picabia institutionalizes choice as the only valid art form in the face of Modernity. In the fall of ’21 he exhibited “L’oeil cacodylate.” It’s a painting brimming with signatures, phrases and language detritus left by friends and colleagues. It looks like the graffiti on the wall of a bar room toilet. In this painting the canvas is no longer a window or a mirror, but a receptacle, an arena for “accidental” documentation. Its imagery is the handwriting, the words, the turn of phrase, the graffiti left over time. When, finally, the artist as consumer, chooser, signs it, it becomes an “artwork.”

“The painter makes a choice, then imitates his choice, whose deformation constitutes Art; why not simply sign this choice instead of monkeying about in front of it? There have been quite enough paintings accumulating, and the approving signature of artists – who are merely that, approvers – would give a new value to those works of art intended for modern mercantilism.”
Francis Picabia. “The Cacodylic Eye,” 1921, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.


Picabia Cacodylic Eye

Francis Picabia.“The Cacodylic Eye,” Mixed Media, 1921.

I’m fascinated by this period of Picabia’s work, because it was the last he did before he officially quit Dada, quit the whole institution of Modernism itself. What does it mean when an artist officially resigns from a movement that they had begun? Can an artist do such a thing? Can one just quit and hand in the brushes? I personally like this idea very much. It smacks of absurdity. But no matter, with Picabia there was always a method to the madness. He’d had enough of the ambitious Breton and his future Surrealists, enough of the careerists and professionals that were starting to form within Dada. He thought that profiting from one’s ideas, as artists do, want to do, was disgusting. Art should be something more than copyrighted material made for profit. And so he quit, “fuck you very much.”

“By wanting to continue Dada retreated into itself. I regret that writing these lines I may hurt friends whom I like a lot, or worry certain companions who are perhaps counting on their investments in Dadaism…I approve of all ideas, but that’s it, they alone interest me,not what hovers around them; speculations made on ideas disgust me. “One has to live,” you’re going to tell me. You know as well as I do that our existence is brief in regards to the speculation one can draw from an invention; we’ve been on earth since the day before yesterday and we’ll die tomorrow!…Life is only tolerable provided you live among people who have no ulterior motive, no opportunists, but that’s asking for the impossible.”
Francis Picabia. “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas,” 1921, from I Am a Beautiful Monster, translated by Marc Lowenthal.

This is the beginning of Picabia’s aesthetic “death spiral” for many Modern purists. The great Clement Greenberg, when discussing waning artistic power, always loved to say that artists at some point would “lose their stuff.” This was a way of categorizing periods or weighing an artist’s importance in the sweep of history. And quite frankly, it’s a way of “valuing” an artist for a market. And it is true. In this regard Picabia did “lose his stuff.” But when looking at the breadth of his ideas and the depth of his ideals in his later work, he was just being true to himself. He often said that he hated “serious artists,” and he defined himself as an “unserious” one. Picabia would have crapped his pants if anyone called him a professional. Art should remain a passion, a hobby, so to speak, though he would choke on those descriptions as well.

And it’s also true that he didn’t have to sell his art. He was wealthy and comfortable. And so he wasn’t beholden to a group, nor was he worried about how he fit into “history.” He could and did make his own way, enjoyed his life as he pleased. And in so doing created a body of work so complex and unique that it actually defined how we Postmodern painters have come to approach our work. His work is a wellspring of contentious ideas and unconventional solutions. Yes, we all know the influence of Warhol in our time, mainly because his work is accessibly beautiful, institutionally accepted, ubiquitous. But it’s harder to actually see Picabia. He never once made accessible, beautiful paintings and when he thought he had, he moved on to something else fairly quickly. You have to really work to get his vision, to see through its complexity, its deliberate clumsiness, to the sharp, hard, visual ideas he was working with.


Francis Picabia, “Self Portrait.” Oil on Canvas,1940.

The late works are the most problematic for historians. These are the paintings based on cheesy nudes, media heroes and Spanish ladies. They are all about the seductive structures of Popular culture, the false Classicism of kitsch, the easy access of ersatz history. In other words they are about the Modern media world and its casual exploitation of power, youth and beauty. My favorite of these works is a 1940 collage of painted images cobbled together from a couple of bathing beauty magazine photos and a “movie star” self-portrait of a tanned and self-satisfied middle aged man with wild hair, Picabia, slyly grinning. All done from photos, all painted with a thick hand trying to stay close to the media reality of the images. Yet nothing sits easily in the space of the painting. He has overcrowded the imagery, just as he had done years before with the Cacodylic Eye. It is not a collage like Picasso’s, who would leave the spaces open and free, framing the pieces into a narrative. Instead, this is an interior language of imagery, one that feels closer to disparate thoughts. It prefigures the the way we mix our own images and meanings today, the way that we “photoshop” our own lives through the reality of media. In fact this is the way that we ourselves become media. In the 21st Century we don’t have to think about the way this painting works. This kind of reality is how we live, the way that we casually experience our lives. Picabia saw this coming reality in the movie posters and magazine advertisements of his day. He understood, better than any artists of the time, the abstracting processes and imagistic power of Modern culture itself.


Dada didn’t last long really. It began just before the war, went dorment during the fighting, and returned with a vengence for a few more years. And that’s the dirty secret about Dada. Beneath its cheeky anger made up of mustaches and monkeys, is the harsh reality of Modern warfare and politics, the horrible violence wrought by speed and mechanization. Dada itself was an art of viral consequences and like a virus it fed on the host body until both would be destroyed. For newly empowered Modernists these upstarts were the virulent strain that had to be cured. And eventually, they were cured – with money, respectability and legitimacy. As Picabia wrote, “Dada retreated into itself.” For him, the most acerbic and difficult contrarian among the Dadaists, there would be no Modern cure. Picabia understood that the institution meant destruction, that the virulence of the disease once weakened becomes an antibody, a helpful and socialized cure. So, he became a kind of mutated germ and spent his time sending up every received notion of Art that he could find. He lived his life in exactly the same way, going through friends, colleagues and lovers like a plague. He continued to paint without the official sanction of the Modern Art World, continued to confound and tweak. I wonder how he would feel about the fact that his ideas had infected later generations of painters, had mutated into an institutional strain of critique. I wonder how he would feel about a Postmodern artist using his ideas to advance a career while claiming that this work is “Classical.” I’d like to think he’d have been appalled.

Don’t spit indeed.

Untethered continues….

Kwik Links

Just a couple of things to share.

First – There is a double retrospective for my late friend Mark Wiener going on at a couple of buildings on the Avenue of the Americas. Chashama, the wonderful non-profit artist organization, is putting on the shows in honor of Mark’s life and work! A fitting tribute to a good friend.

“chashama is pleased to announce an exhibition of works by the late New York artist Mark Wiener (1951-2012), featuring two distinct groups of paintings representing new directions taken by Wiener in his last decade. Curated by Janusz Jaworski, the double retrospective in the Durst Organization’s lobbies at 1133 and 1155 Avenue of the Americas, runs through November 20th with viewing hours 8am-7pm, Monday through Friday.” from the Press Release.

Second – Paul Corio, the indefatigable impresario of abstraction, has written another wonderful run down of the current New York art scene for Abstract Critical. I’ve noticed recently a reassessment of painting from the 60′s and the 90′s, and Paul’s lucidly written article gives us a map to compare and contrast these kinds of abstraction. I highly recommend you check it out!

Paul’s opening paragraph:

“The New York art season opened earlier this month with what seems like an impossible number of shows in Chelsea, Bushwick, Dumbo, Midtown, and the Lower East Side, with still more dotting neighbourhoods off the beaten track. Are there really enough rich people to keep all these spaces afloat?”

And the answer to that, Paul, is “Yes, there are.” I know this, because there are thousands of square feet of expensive new condos being built in my little neighborhood. They promise “Bauhaus style living” – whatever the fuck that means…. If you build it, they will come.

Untethered – Spirit

Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art which, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of “things.” Kazimir Malevich

Purity. The Modern world just couldn’t get enough of it. Which is surprising really, considering the many unpure twists and turns that Modernity and Modernism would take through the ensuing years. But there in the first two decades of the 20th Century one could read a lot of wild talk about “purity” in the manifestos of iconoclastic artists. Kazimir Malevich, especially, wanted purity, and he wanted it in a way no other artist had in a very long time. Like many young artists of his generation he had done the work – moving quickly through Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism, Blue Riders, and a half dozen of the other “isms” that were floating about the intellectual circles of the early avant-garde. Yet none of these kinds of painting ever seemed to be enough. So he got to work, began to limit his paintings to very specific geometrics, flat compositional structures and universal forms with very specific meanings and strict applications. He was desperate to evoke and encounter something extraordinary in his Art, something ineffable without the world getting in the way of his view, so to speak. It was only when he finally embraced “pure” abstraction, pure form, pure color, pure composition, that things fell into place for him.

The Modern world as Malevich saw it had become “obscured” by things. These things created too many contingencies, too much compromised imagery in the work of his colleagues. Malevich wanted a kind of direct optical language that would cut through the blur of lived experience and bring one straight to a meaningful encounter with purity. His work would be about something apart from one’s life, from the overwrought, overcrowded thingness in the world. For the first time in many centuries, painting would not be contingent on “lived experience.” Instead his work would be a painting of the mind, of thought and consciousness, of spirit, something that would not compromise one’s understanding of the ineffable. This painting was abstract, conceptual, logocentric, more directed through language and thought. In these “Supreme” paintings there is no visual time, no sequence or event, no viewpoint, no figure ground relationship, no dimension. One would simply encounter, all at once, always already, the immaculate.

“Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.” Kazimir Malevich. “The Non-Objective World.”

Visual painting was under assault from the avant-garde in those early years. Painters, artists of all type, were turning against the long established precedent of visual primacy. Modernism opened the way for all kinds of dissent. In this regard Suprematist painting is the alternate critique of the French cult of visual sensate experience, what Duchamp called “retinal art.” But unlike the French Dadaists’ fascination with the use of irony, “bad painting,” and the absurd, this kind of abstract painting is deadly serious, set to very old themes, very old ideas of what Art might be and what it might accomplish. There would be no silly discussions of light or space, touch or feel. This kind of abstraction would appear before the viewer as a kind of universal language of form. In essence Malevich’s abstraction was a reclamation, a return to an Art of religious illumination. There is a sense of the sacred, of the sacramental text in this work, as if the painter, floating his geometries on the flat ground of pure conscious awareness, is somehow communing with and describing the word of God. In it’s way Suprematism, as Malevich intended it, was Medieval in its design, iconoclastic art disguised in contemporary abstraction. And without the slightest bit of irony, Kazimir saw himself as a Messiah of sorts, bringing a new religion of Art into the Modern world.

“Although the Russian avant-garde movement was heavily influenced by Western art— Paul Cézanne and Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism in particular— it was also much influenced by its own national traditions during this time. Religious art (church architecture, icons, frescoes) and traditional crafts (wood carving, ceramics, embroidery) enjoyed an unexpected revival in Russia in the early 1910s. Examples of religious and folk art were collected, studied, and exhibited alongside works of high art. The cosmic nature of Old Russian and folk art helped the masters of the avant-garde advance deeper into the realms of nonobjectivity, a process aided also by the religious beliefs typically held, in varying degrees, by the majority of Russian avant-garde artists.”
Petrova, Evgenia (2012-04-17). Malevich’s Suprematism and Religion (Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism). Guggenheim Museum.

Life and Art

Malevich and the other leaders of this push for “purity” were nearly all Russian. And in those early years of the 20th Century most of the Russian artists were being deeply affected by violent societal uprisings, disastrous political alliances, and the country’s economic ruin. The corrupt government’s decision in 1914 to enter the War would become the final act in Russia’s historic downfall. The country, cobbled together by jerry-rigged political factions, could no longer hold together under the strain of 20th century warfare. I shan’t go into the betrayals and horrors those poor people were facing, but it is understandable that Russia’s progressive artists, like their politically disenfranchised countrymen, would want something pure, would want to understand something larger and more promising than the “accumulation of things,” would want to see something other than the horrific images of their own suffering. And it turned out that Messiah’s of all kind saw this as an opportunity to change things, in fact, an opportunity to change everything.

“In this atmosphere of corruption, of monstrous half-truths, one clear note sounded day after day, the deepening chorus of the Bolsheviki, “All Power to the Soviets! All power to the direct representatives of millions on millions of common workers, soldiers, peasants. Land, bread, an end to the senseless war, an end to secret diplomacy, speculation, treachery…. The Revolution is in danger, and with it the cause of the people all over the world!”
The struggle between the proletariat and the middle class, between the Soviets and the Government, which had begun in the first March days, was about to culminate. Having at one bound leaped from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century, Russia showed the startled world two systems of Revolution-the political and the social – in mortal combat.”
John Reed. 10 Days That Changed the World.

Nothing is clean. Shortcuts are taken. Hypocrisies are rampant. Betrayals are inevitable. Deception becomes the norm. Revolution is never pure, never clear in the real world, and good intentions turn out to be nothing but false promises. The come-ons of politicians and organizers can never work without compromise in a world of things, and so, what might have been, what was thought to be the best thing, is nearly always made unreal, always sullied by the workings of the world. Purity might look to anyone lost in the mess of this Revolution, any revolution for that matter, like peace, like comfort, like hope. And maybe Abstraction, pure Abstraction would be a way to define a kind of spirituality, a nostalgic gloss of purity amidst violent political, social and cultural upheaval. There is nothing new in this idea, nothing new about yearning for a golden age, a clear conscience, a pure consciousness that sees and understands beyond the “accumulation of things.” Malevich saw himself and his art as a revelation, saw his Suprematism as a way to a express what was missing – a clear-headed, perfectly realized emotive experience. And he held tight to these beliefs throughout his career.

Of course Kazimir’s interpretation of messianic artistic purity through abstraction would never hold in the new secular Soviet state. Artists, especially theoretical artists, tend to think not in terms of worldly reality, but in terms of otherworldly Art. Michelangelo’s hyper-erotic Catholicism, Delacroix’s theatrical populist revolution, Goya’s bald-faced renditions of cruelty, Picasso’s terrible Guernica; where in the world other than Art can such sharply revolutionary ideals, such visceral political challenges and critiques, actually exist and survive? Artists have always paid the price for these visual challenges in some way. Many Suprematists in the new Soviet Union found that their prospects for employment in the State run universities were quickly thinning. So, they became Constructivists, and aligned themselves with the aims of the collective making “pure” abstraction socially “useful.” Malevich, however, continued to stand by his theories about abstraction and purity. And he too paid a severe price for his obstinacy as his career prospects began to thin in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of institutional Soviet Communism. By the mid 20’s both he and his art were on the state’s shit list, and his once stellar career dried up. Under the Stalinist government he wound up in prison and faced a horrible choice. He found he had to compromise his beliefs in a compromised world. His radical avant-garde legacy, however, lived on in the West, especially in Berlin and Munich, where he was considered a true pioneer and originator of Modernism. Ironically, the most radical of the early Modernists, the artist most concerned with providing and resurrecting an artistic spiritual realm for Art and painting in this new era, a true revolutionary, had fallen out with the Revolution’s new “Modern” state.

Old and New

In 1915 Malevich showed a “retrospective” of his work entitled the “Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10” in the city of Petrograd. I’ll come clean about this “non-objective” work straight off. Though I think these are marvelous paintings and historically significant, this work is not a favorite of mine. But that’s not entirely true either. Let’s say I’m not a big fan of certain aspects of the “non-objective” works on view in the photo. I do not connect with the floating forms in the flat landscape space, a trope of abstract painting that I think still plagues most of my painting colleagues to this very day. However, there are three paintings in the exhibition that helped to set the course for later Modernism and Postmodernism in ways that Malevich could never have seen. Those paintings are the most abstract and straightforward; the cross, the square and the stripe (or rectangle if you prefer.) All of the other paintings retain a figure ground relationship, geometric figures tumbling artfully across a flat ground. They are lively and decorative, but they do not have the presence or heft that I seek when looking at paintings.

In the three works I’ve just distinguished Malevich destroys the space of painting, and in doing so, begins to change our relationship to the surface and support of the painting. This was the most radical assault upon the precedent of Western painting by any of the early Modernists. What begins to happen in the Square, Cross and Stripe is that the painting is no longer a painting of a thing, but has indeed become a thing in itself. The form, the shape of the form fills the space of the painting. The paintings become painted objects instead of paintings of objects in painted space. By objectifying the thing, the painting of pure form itself, our relationship to Painting is newly changed – both the Renaissance “window” and the Naturalistic “mirror” become redundant. Malevich’s distrust and distaste for the “accumulation of things” in paintings IS the opportunity to make the painting itself into a thing-in-the-world, in essence a being, a sublime thing. A painting as a thing is as real as a chair, a desk, a pipe, while retaining its symbolic, Platonic meaning as a painting. It doesn’t create a visual world, but is instead, in the world. It is a fetish object, something to be contemplated, and quite possibly worshipped, rather than seen.

From our vantage point in the 21st Century we must look at a further interesting point about this kind of “icon” making. This kind of painting, as a thing, is easily picked up by the camera AS a thing-in-the-world. Now I know this will sound a bit obtuse to many of my painting friends, but the lens captures/photographs actual things in the world better than it does painted images on surfaces. The space of painting on the surface of the painting has absolutely no reality, no heft when captured by the lens. We say it all the time when looking at photos of paintings, almost as an apology – “It looks much different in reality.” (Seeing a Mondrian in person for the first time was quite a shock. I had no idea how hand made the thing actually was.) It’s the way light falls on an object, the way the thing itself encompasses place, the way the lens reproduces that physical reality and existence of space and time while glossing over surfaces. Take a look at the photograph of Malevich’s 1915 exhibition – which paintings stand out, which paintings really assert their presence as things on a wall? Are they the paintings with the bits and pieces floating across a surface or are they the paintings that read like objects, actual things? The lens decides for us, making those paintings, the Stripe, Cross and Square, into objects on the wall; enigmatic, present, thick and real. The other paintings present their decorative nature, their shallow Modern landscape spaces while emphasizing the obviousness of Art. What the lens is doing when it captures the physical nature of all those rectangles on the wall is revealing their absolute irreducible thingness, incorporating them into the reality of the captured world. This concentration of lens vision, optics, on the reality of the painting itself, what a painting could be, how it could act in a replicated reality, would challenge and eventually overturn the visual legacy of the School of Paris – even more than irony or Abstraction itself. All painting, the entire legacy of painting, was being reformed to be made and seen through the lens. (There will be more on this later.)

In our Postmodern period it would be the Americans that would hone Malevich’s reductive object-oriented legacy in response to Greenberg’s latter day AbEx Modernism. For the most part the spiritual and emotive theoretics of Malevich’s work were put aside in favor of the absolutist nature of the geometric object itself. American Industry redefined his message of purity – pure form honed through the “purity” of the manufacturing processes. In this sense “un-made” perfection could be accessed using the hard-edge conceptual promise of Malevich’s Black Square. It is an architectural beauty, the beauty of the inhuman reproduction, the machined concept, the promise of Modernist Capitalism. Our post-industrial culture is, after all, about the endless production and appearance of fetishized clean objects like iPhones, flat screen televisions, Tesla automobiles and Armani suits. For the Americans Malevich’s sense of abstract purity was found in an object’s clarity of form and the context in which that form was seen. Whether one had an emotional connection or found purity in it was not really of any concern. Instead the artist would provide the idealized form, the mechanized process, the clear Platonic ideal. The Black Square, all those years before, had opened the way for this kind of conceptual approach to Abstraction, and in so doing, redefined the reality of the meaning of an art object for the following generations. We can see this idea at work especially in the work of Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and the many, many other Postmodern abstractionists that followed.

malevich Black Square
“The square is not a subconscious form. It is the creation of intuitive reason. The face of the new art. The square is a living, regal infant. The first step of pure creation in art. Before it there were naive distortions and copies of nature.”
Kazimir Malevich.

Now I leave this part of Untethered with one last question. How is it that this Black Square came to symbolize emotion and purity for Malevich? I’m still confounded by this idea. The Black Square is emphatic, analytical, its existence in that sense is pure. But for me it’s a cold empty form, an obvious object. Maybe coldness, blackness, blankness ARE the emotions that Malevich was talking about, symbolic of the confrontation with and acceptance of eternity. I really don’t know. When he painted this Square the Modern world was spinning out of control – technology had outstripped our understanding of what it could actually do, what that technology actually could mean in human terms. An inevitable clash between the past and the future was about to unfold on an unprecedented global scale, and in the face of that understanding Malevich presents us with this pure reduction of vision, a symbol for the Devine. He even had the damned thing shown at his funeral as a last statement about his life. I’ve tried to get to some deeper understanding about this painting in his writings, but still I’m left without any true clarity. Along with his messianic speechifying about purity, he also talked a great deal about emotion, our emotional connection to his geometries. But the problem is he never actually tells us which fucking emotion he is trying to reach, or even if he’s trying to reach all of our emotions, concentrating them into this one tight spot, this one square, black thing. We’re very much left to our own devices in the face of this painting. Malevich called it the “zero of form,” and it is indeed just that – it reveals absolutely nothing while exposing itself emphatically, directly. Donald Judd would later equate this conceptual “zero” to the inevitable thingness of painting itself – surface and side – all paintings are simply rectangles, squares on walls. For me this kind of massively reductive visual nihilism directed at the history of painting leaves out so much, takes all the fucking fun out of painting itself, and quite frankly, depresses me no end. But still I’m drawn to the inevitable presence of this Square black thing and the direct confrontation it evokes in the face of an elusive, evocative idea, with my own mis-understanding and mis-reading of our 21st Century lens-based vision, and the continuing iron-fisted legacy of Modernism and Modernity.

Untethered continues….