When Barnett Newman made the first “zip” painting he turned it to the wall and stopped working for a time to contemplate its meaning. He dug in, tried to come to terms with himself, with what he had painted. And once he thought he understood where the painting came from he destroyed all of the work that he had made before. Over the next twenty years about one hundred and twenty or so paintings came out of his studio, and these few works define his legacy to the history of Art. It’s not a lot of work over a twenty year period, especially when we consider his achievement from our side of the Modern/Postmodern divide.
Contemporary painters see these paintings as simply made, eminently “reproducible.” The POMO “Barnett” would have a back log of pre-stretched linen canvases in various shapes and sizes, stacked in wait for production. He’d have boxes of virgin tape rolls in various thicknesses, and most important, gallons of the top brands of European “Old World” hand milled oil paint in every color aligned upon his shelves. His studio would look like a Costco warehouse. “Zips” would appear in major galleries from New York City to Shanghai. “Barnett” might even outsource the work to trusted assistants or one or two of the numerous art production companies common in our business, using very exacting standards of quality control. In fact the POMO “Barnett” would. Invariably there could be “zips” in every major museum, every major private collection, every secondary market, every art fair on the circuit. These must-see showings would open with post-structural press releases discussing transcendence and sublimity underlining the tragedy of their creation and the works’ connection to this Global moment. Full page ads would appear in the major art magazines. There would be breathless write ups in the “art press” by what passes for “art critics,” draping these works in shiny necklaces of glittering purple drivel. “Barnett” would be an Art World darling, a sought after cash cow, making money for one and all. This is how Art works in the Postmodern era.
But the work, the legacy and meaning of that work would be entirely different.
“You must realize that twenty years ago we felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce world war, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing – flowers, reclining nudes and people playing the cello. At the same time we could not move into the situation of a pure world of unorganized shapes and forms, or color relations, a world of sensation. And I would say that for some of us this was our moral crisis in relation to what to paint. So that we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed.” Barnett Newman
In this era our focus for Art is quite different, to say the least. The problems that Barnett faced in his studio, like history or war or economic collapse, don’t quite affect us in the same way. For example over the last 12 years (that’s 12!) the US has been involved in two vicious wars on two fronts in the Middle East. We are still actively involved in one. In 2008 we experienced an unparalleled economic catastrophe of global proportions, the kind of economic ground burning not seen since the Great Depression. And these events all began when the US was rocked by a terrorist attack of such brazen insidiousness that it still seems impossible to believe that so many died, so horribly, in such a dramatically staged display of terror and violence. This kind of graphic display of destruction is a technique of warfare our very own military theoreticians had explored years earlier. Shock and Awe is a way to overwhelm and confuse an enemy through power and terror, and this technique had been turned on us. The truly bizarre thing about all of these massive blows to our society is how much nothing actually seemed to change in our culture, how most everything we had encountered and experienced as shocking and disorienting was neatly packaged, quickly televised and thoroughly enfolded into the reality of our everyday existence. In the days after 9-11 the government’s immediate response was to tell our population to continue to go about our lives as if nothing had happened. And most of us did. “When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” By September 27th 2001, when this speech was made by then President Bush to the airline industry, America had become a different, more hyper-real experience, and our salvation and solution to the shock we had experienced was to carry on as if nothing had happened.
For most of us in the Art World, all of these “shocks” haven’t created a “moral crisis in relation to what to paint.” Morality in Postmodern culture was beside the point, especially when we made Art. We just kept right on manufacturing the same products, following the same kinds of theoretical chains of thought and upping the ante in our “world of sensation.” We followed the sage advice and scripted wishes of our leaders, our institutions, gallerists and collectors. In fact over this entire decade of wrenching political, economic and philosophic upheavals and challenges the one artwork that has come to define the character, depth and scope of this, our High Postmodernist Era, is Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog.” “My work is a support system for people to feel good about themselves.” And indeed we do, really good.
The Modern era began with manifestos and “newness.” Over the last century it became a monolithic societal behemoth, an ordering of reality and culture on a par with the institutionalization of Christianity at the implosion of the Roman Empire. And it remains the focus of our endless attention, a Ship of Theseus, in constant repair, renewal and reinterpretation. The Modern era, the once great revolution spurring social upheavals and aesthetic iconoclasms is now the meta-program running in the background of our lives. It’s interesting that so many of us artists, especially painters, remain unwilling to discuss and examine our own Modern history, both in the ways that it has shaped our society and changed our aesthetic choices. Instead, we happily mine that history as if it were a vast natural resource, as if it had no meaning or reality outside of its use value. This is the focus of our Postmodern culture. Many of the artists that I talk with think that this discussion’s done, that the answers have all been given, that further examination is pointless. What more should be said about the past when we can simply choose the choicest bits from a menu of historical ingredients and proceed to brand our clever amalgamations, create fashionably timed pastiches of retro-tinged ideas and visions? Goddammit, we’ve paid for the university educations, we’ve attended the Master programs, so obviously, there’s nothing left to question. Questions don’t pay, my man! There’s only a career to get started, a market presence to establish, a product to develop, a brand to publicize.
The idea of the branded product pervades the entire Postmodern art establishment no matter what an artist’s stance is in relation to that market. Every piece of work that is made and shown is seen in that market context. Every review, every write up, every column, every presentation about Art sooner or later gets round to the power of the market. The economics guides the conversation around the meaning of the work. For instance the recent discussions of Paul McCarthy’s obvious tongue in cheek shot across Jeff Koons‘ Balloon Dog’s snout at the Frieze Art Fair and the dual dueling shows of new work at the most prestigious galleries in NYC, centered on the idea that these two powerful market forces were engaging in a measuring contest of economic power and market resources. Aesthetics hardly entered into the discussion except in relation to issues of craftsmanship. Deeper discussions of the depth of the meaning of the work outside of the media spectacle and market value have been carefully avoided, or worse, have not been considered at all. Why? Because a work’s use value in the market place is determined not by what the work might mean, its subject matter and what that’s supposed to do, but by how it makes the support systems around it look to the rest of the world. This kind of work is there to enhance the meaning of those who uphold and finance the economic system itself. This “Balloon Dogging” of aesthetic theoretics is the most conservative of ideas. And unfortunately, this is what’s left of the progressive Modern era.
We call this Professionalism, and it developed right alongside a perniciously antiseptic view of our Modernist past. Today we easily separate Modernism from Modernity. We state that one has little relation to the other – one is Art the other History and that they are mutually exclusive. This began with Greenberg’s clever surgical separation of Modernism from Modernity, and it was an attempt at a kind of market compartmentalization. In the 1940s trying to build a viable and lucrative art market for contemporary American artists was nearly impossible. The problem at that time was with the artists themselves, who tended to be looked upon with suspicion and fear by the people with the money and power to collect and promote their work. Greenberg actively cultivated a distinction between Art and Life, and he developed a kind of pragmatic paradigm of artistic precedent, essentially turning the history of Art into a lucrative business model. The story goes like this, it wasn’t the artists’ relationship to society, class and culture that drove creation in Modern art. Instead progressive contemporary Art, especially painting, was simply a search for technical innovation aimed at providing a pure form of visual beauty, a beauty unattainable in any other professional discipline. He turned radical Modernism on its head, stripped it of its social pretensions and rebellions, and made painting into a marketable product in a way that Americans and especially American collectors could understand. Mad Men marketers do this sort of thing all the time separating our products from the realities of the manufacturing of those products – just have a look at the advertising compared to the realities of our electronics industry, pharmaceutical industry or our food industry. This strategy, slyly linking artistic innovation to entrepreneurial endeavor rather than societal revolution, was so wildly successful that nearly all of the Kings of Wall Street became collectors of the Commie Pinko Radicals toiling away in their 10th Street Art Ghetto practically overnight. They even sent these tainted works on Embassy and International tours sponsored by the US government and underwritten by American corporations in order to promote a new Golden Era of American cultural leadership.
What DOES the painter paint after the Second World War?
In the 1940s Newman realized that he could not rely on the history of Art to help him answer this question. Not even the brief history of Modernism and its stated goal of transcendence through Abstraction could be relied upon. Instead he found an Abstraction that in the face of the Modern world would be seen as untenable, unrealized, unprecedented, and thus, totally unique. In this painting one might still see Modernism’s promise on its surface, however, one would also have to see its abysmal failure. These zips, created at the very moment when Modernism had been stripped bare by the bachelors of Fascism, hinted at something unprecedented that Newman could not have known or guessed in those long months of contemplation. These paintings had all the tropes of the “Modern” as it was known; flatness, surface, scale, physicality, abstraction, but they also projected something more, something Modernism had long since ignored or forgotten – a visual confrontation with emptiness. Instead of connection and transcendence this experience is filled with solitude, displacement and visual ineffability. We know that Newman wanted to create a connection to the heroic past, to a kind of classical conception of humanity, but these zips break that connection, leave us to our own existence. They give us something far more wrenching, more inhuman, splitting the visual field in two, overwhelming us in their proportions. What is heroic about these works is that they affirm the painter, the artist in ways that Modernism itself never could. These paintings are the moment of the first untethering of Abstraction from Modernism.
“Some twenty-two years ago in a gathering, I was asked what my painting really means in terms of society, in terms of the world. . . . And my answer then was that if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism. Because to the extent that my painting was not an arrangement of objects, not an arrangement of spaces, not an arrangement of graphic elements, was [instead] an open painting . . . to that extent I thought, and I still believe, that my work in terms of its social impact does denote the possibility of an open society.” Barnett Newman
I’ve been writing an introduction for weeks with no way into this mess and getting bloody frustrated, I have to say. The turning point came as I witnessed the recent travesty made of Newman’s legacy, the way the media framed the work as something gathering potential market value. Watching the media set this up was like watching a Hollywood summer movie. One just had to check off the cliched plot points as the explosions got bigger and louder. The thing that bothered me about this NeoLiberal Lucre Binge was that Newman’s visual courage and aesthetic achievement challenging the warped theoretics and violent outcomes of the first half of the 20th Century had become nothing more than a sales pitch designed to entice an acquisitive and avaricious Art World. I guess I would have been fine with the sale if all that was said was that Newman’s work was rare and hardly ever made it to the auction block, especially a piece of this quality. Instead we got this beefed up version, the Entertainment Tonight highlight designed to sex up our desire for commerce. What had been a meaningful painted experience, what should still be a meaningful tale of Satori, revelation, became nothing more than an economic entertainment, a feel-good homily designed to bolster an ever-appreciating art market investment. Onement VI was auctioned for 43 million dollars. The best Art is business indeed.
Over this series we will be discussing a lot of hard topics, all of them connected to the Modern era in some way, and in doing so, we’ll try to come to some different conclusions about the aesthetics of the era. We are doing this to rethink this moment, our moment, to find something else outside the Market’s influence on our aesthetics and our well worn approaches to making Art. What that is we’ll discover along the way. With your indulgence and patience maybe we’ll find some things about the world around us that we haven’t yet considered, that we don’t quite understand.
We begin this series, as we must, with a different question than Newman’s, but one I feel must be answered. What does the painter paint after the end of history?