December 2011

Romanticism – Final Rites

“The media has replaced every institution. It’s the only authority. I mean, it seems to be an authority. It’s replaced all other institutions. When they first invented TV, people thought TV would be a failure. They thought that, if people could see around the screen, they wouldn’t be absorbed by it, because they would be distracted. They would see, like, the lamp and the sofa and they wouldn’t be absorbed by it….But no-one could have imagined what really happened, which is that the world went inside the television and became the world.” Fran Liebowitz Public Speaking

I’ve been looking for a way in, or better yet, a way through. All this past summer and into the fall, somewhere between my studio, the electronic world and my own world of flesh and blood failings, I’ve found myself without continuity, reality, or firmament to stand on. In the wider world outside our insular Art World there have been major upheavals playing in the media; the Middle East uprisings, the pull out from Iraq, the forecast of yet more economic depression, OWS and the slow motion death of the Euro. All of it fueled by and funneled through the electronic world. Some of these reality dramas have been “paid for” with physical violence, crushing uncertainty and violent death. Yet change, real change, has been illusive. Here in the 21st Century Postmodernism is still a fucking bitch. Its mechanisms and schemes, practices and theoretics, absorb and dissipate, remove the threat of new ideas by re-packaging them in media friendly episodes while enfolding them into the larger “critique”. Nothing is different, nothing has CHANGED, except that those who run the system, who code the program, have consolidated even more economic and political power. Don’t get me wrong there are moments when I pause, when individual moments of sacrifice and dissent somehow get through…. The example of that brave, brave woman who was dragged and beaten in Tahrir square by officially sanctioned jack booted thugs was one recent story that’s stuck with me. She said she did “not want her name revealed because of her shame at the way she was treated.” She was simply standing for her right to participate, to determine her future, to vote, to be counted. The shame isn’t hers. I haven’t words for this woman’s kind of bravery and sacrifice, and because I don’t, it changes how I see the world, how I feel about the world around me. I guess what I’m hoping for, the change that I’m seeking, has to be in me, and because of this understanding, I find I have to be larger than my many, many failings.

AH poverties, wincings, and sulky retreats!
Ah you foes that in conflict have overcome me!
(For what is my life, or any man’s life, but a conflict
with foes—the old, the incessant war?)
You degradations—you tussle with passions and appe-
You smarts from dissatisfied friendships, (ah wounds,
the sharpest of all;)
You toil of painful and choked articulations—you mean-
You shallow tongue-talks at tables, (my tongue the
shallowest of any;)
You broken resolutions, you racking angers, you smoth-
er’d ennuis;
Ah, think not you finally triumph—My real self has yet
to come forth;
It shall yet march forth o’ermastering, till all lies be-
neath me;
It shall yet stand up the soldier of unquestion’d victory.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass

For me art should follow life, should be the result of experience. Art should begin with questions and end with even more questions. The Romantic experience will always push at the boundaries of one’s thought, adjusting one’s vision as one moves on through the years. The De Kooning show at MOMA was revelatory in this respect for a number of reasons. First, it showed that one must always push against one’s achievements no matter the cost. Careerists today don’t exhibit this kind of courage. Case in point is Damien Hirst who claimed that he was retiring certain “lines” of his work after the auction of 2008. He’ll be having a worldwide showing of one of those lines in the Gagosian Empire Galleries. Who knows, maybe it’ll be the-greatest-thing-ever-to-have-been-witnessed-in-the-history-of-painting-did-I-say-ever?-ok-then-ever! For the collecting oligarchs it probably will be just that. Second, De Kooning showed us that we, WE POSTMODERNS I mean, don’t EVER, NEVER EVER EVER, NEVER have to make painting like this or about this kind of vision EVER again. ABEX is an anachronism, just as seeing in the old ways is an anachronism. The show looked OLD, OLD MASTER OLD. And that says a lot about our contemporary failings, because this show made a whole lot of painters that followed in De Kooning’s wake, whether they were pro or con, look just ancient, lazy in ways he wasn’t and tired, worn out, and exhausted. Let’s face it ABEX has been critiqued, appropriated, reproduced and replicated in EVERY form possible, in every medium. At this point to paint in this style, to continue the replication of it, is nothing but Porn – an endless spectacle of mechanical procedures. Stop it! Please! Now! Third, this kind of life and approach to art, though it may be successful and fruitful, is a long, hard, lonely struggle. What I found really breathtaking about the show was that all through the years there were periods of real visual connection and then real visual disaffection, but always a questioning, a running dialectic of means. When he fell short I guess you could blame the drink, the personal problems, whatever, but his life, the ebb and flow of it, made the art, not the other way around. De Kooning, the last Romantic artist, was also the last great Amateur. The Professionals, with their even, work-a-day productions, followed in his wake.


Just before the Biennale in June I determined that I would have to look deeper, to see further, to think around the screen. I wanted to test yet again my work and my thoughts about painting. These Final Rites began in Venice, surrounded and buoyed by the great painters I love. By chance, while there in my garden, I came across a reproduction of a drawing of Giambologna by Goltzius. Then I happened on a reference photo of the swimmer that Cezanne used to make his famous bather. I hadn’t seen this photo before, and I was absolutely stunned. Finally, I felt like I was getting nowhere with my own continuing contrarian struggle to find a way through late 20th Century abstraction, Postmodernism, and the thick, boring, institutional 21st Century art world of art fairs, chic galleries and elite luxury goods economies. Everywhere I went to see art, no matter where I went, I found that I experienced it through the airless sheen of a Corporate Art Experience. Seeing Christopher Wool’s work in Venice was also stunning, cold as ice, and everything that I am not. It is what I needed to push against, something to challenge. I’d really had enough. I felt there had to be an alternative, but how to explain, how does one change the temperature, explain the world outside the screen while being lost in it. Henri began to feel like it was no longer a tool, a platform for thought and ideas, but just another art blog, yet another ridiculous Art entertainment scheduled and broadcasted. And with that realization I found myself at a crossroads. I felt the need to travel, to see something old, to not know the language, to watch things unfamiliar, to experience WARMER art, and also, to immerse myself in the history of vision, to shed my American-ness, my “practicality”. So between airports and short-term apartment stays, cafes and metros, filterless cigarettes and smokey tasting bourbon, I found myself trying to clear my mind. And I found myself at a painting ancestor’s home…

The Garden

In Delacroix’s garden on the bench opposite there’s a couple having a bag lunch. Just in front of me is the studio with its huge window which allowed Delacroix to flood the red damasked room with a great deal of light. This place was a reward in the last decade or so of his life when he was already a master. It’s filled with the kind of ease you feel around someone who lives comfortably within themselves. He wasn’t interested in setting the world on fire any longer, those days were a memory. I thought of Manet’s visit to Delacroix which ended Eduard’s hero worship. Before he went Manet was warned by a friend that Delacroix was a cold fish. During the visit Delacroix blathered on and on about Rubens, and Manet found he had no time for it. Afterward he said to his friend, “Delacroix isn’t cold at all, but his doctrine is frozen. Anyway, we’ll copy the Barque. It is a fine piece.” Indeed it is, look at the splash of water running down the figure’s hip on the left and you’ll find Rubens. What strikes me about Manet’s quote is the idea of a frozen doctrine. Delacroix’s work is Romantic, hot, sexy, and alive. But he had reached the point when he stopped questioning, became stagnated. Romantics are great in their youth, but most burn out quickly their ideas in ashes. They have to work from some other place, from a physical need. It’s why we here in the 21st Century don’t trust them, and it’s why they won’t ever be, can’t be, professionals. They work from passion.

Delacroix’s great works are of course in great museums, but you’ll find a couple of intimate paintings left here at his last studio that smolder and smoke; a study of a foot, a portrait of a beauty, and a notebook of vicious drawings – wondrous, spectacular bits and pieces of a visual life connected intimately to understanding and feeling existence through one’s eyes. Even in these last days dictated by a frozen doctrine his vision could still smolder and burn. The couple got up and left, and I sat for a while listening to a televised soccer match commentary coming from an open window above. Something about a winger passing into the center and a missed opportunity – at least that’s what I could put together from my rudimentary French menu reading skills. Was this studio the icy tomb of a Romantic’s frozen doctrine or was there a lesson to learn, one that might open a way into our own day?
Would Eugene have enjoyed this as much as I was?

The 19th Century was radical in ways we don’t quite get here in the distance. Most of the 20th century and its vicious infamies began right there. Painting certainly wasn’t immune to these doctrines. For the most part naked vision was quickly being replaced by lenses and chemicals, and later, machines and programs. There were still wonderful works to make and see, but the idea of painting, the Grand Art of Painting, would never exist as it once had in the minds of artists. We would instead be Modern while we tore out our eyes. And of course this began a new discussion, a deeper involvement in the minds of artists about what Art could be, should be. The truth is – the proliferation of Photography changed EVERYTHING for those of us who love images. But there at the onset of this lens based Modernism Delacroix and Ingres had differing ideas about the future and importance of photography; one hot, the other cool. Delacroix thought it a great tool and used it as a reference point, a way to enhance his imagination and vision. Ingres railed against photography actually leading a cranky chorus of academics who claimed to be dead set against it. The irony is, as Hockney has pointed out, that Ingres and the others in his crew must have used a lens for many of their portrait drawings, actually tracing outlines just as a Postmodern Warhol would do. And this difference between Delacroix and Ingres became a cross roads where art history made a decision. And we, here in the distance, are not a part of the questions that were being asked. We forget the larger context, the other answers to those questions that may have been as valid and compelling, that may have made exciting art, exciting painting. As we all know History belongs to the winners, but what might we have forgotten about the fight? This is one of the many reasons that I love Hockney’s detective story. It opens up all kinds of questions that we assume to be answered. Hockney’s Secret Knowledge offers another thought about HOW WE SEE THINGS at this stage of the game…. It helps us see around the screen.

It began with a drawing:

This is a portrait of the Mannerist sculptor Giambologna done by Hendrick Goltzius in 1591. It was drawn right at the moment when Mannerism had begun to implode. In Northern Italy the Caracci were calling for a new realism in painting, and in Rome, Caravaggio had just begun to reformulate intimate lens images into grand theatrical visions. If one looks closely one can see that this drawing has all the earmarks of “tracing” just as Hockney explains. This is especially apparent if one looks to the lower part of the drawing with its quick descriptive lines and specific contours. I say this because once you know what to look for it really does become visually apparent when a lens reference has been used. Now I am mesmerized by this drawing – it looks to me like a contemporary vision, it feels like a reality that we know, a person we might see on the street. It remains doggedly naturalistic and familiar, never slipping into the hyper-real image programming that we are used to experiencing in our lens saturated age. Its vision, its familiarity is found in the movement of the line, the moment of its realization, the connection of the eye and the hand as they create an image. Its physical realization is also an internalization of the limitations, boundaries and specificities of the lens image – it’s natural perspective is a guide. Further it’s a sublimation, an humanization of the way a lens works. The portrait is fleshy, corporeal, and it speaks of a specific time and place – a long, unfolding moment. What’s missing for us in this drawing is our mechanical programs, the sheen of the airless code that distorts and modifies the lens captured image. This image is built up, hand hewn, SEEN in real time, fashioned with the understanding of the world around the lens. This drawing has the feel of being both worked and yet easy, tight and loose, real and abstract all at once. And what all of that adds up to is the idea of PROCESS – a truly Modernist material sensibility. This portrait FEELS contemporary, looks of the moment and yet encourages us to rethink how we accept our images on the screen in front of us. It has something that we don’t see much of in our electronic images – an unfolding of a hard won visual understanding in a single visual moment. It is hot, alive, compelling. And that for me is Romantic.

Then I had to reconsider some things:

One of the most influential paintings of a figure in the 20th Century was based on a photograph. Cezanne’s Bather broke a lot of rules with the redrawing of the figure’s head, the reworking of the figure’s outline. That hesitation, that re-figuring would unleash both Matisse and Picasso. Even more surprising is that the painting incorporated the natural flattening of the lens that Cezanne instinctively understood. Look at the lower right corner of the photo, the way it flattens into the blackness of the edge of the thing. The abstract pattern on the floor also provides a weird upended depth against the flat lower wall, a stiff line marks out the rigid back ground. The head is slightly distorted by the angle of the lens, either that or the guy in the photo’s head was HUGE. We see this effect nearly everyday in those Paparazzi photos from the red carpet – the photographer holds the camera over the head of the photographer in front, and aims and shoots downward at the starlet. We are used to that kind of skewing of vision, but for a Modernist in the 19th Century this was revelatory. All of those strange bits and pieces provided by the lens are translated into the painting in which Cezanne added some suggestions of his own passion for tromping through the countryside. For Cezanne this isn’t a just a “bather” but a giant striding over a flattened back drop. If we stretch a bit further we can also see that the treatment of this particular figure harkens back to the processes we see in the Goltzius portrait. The line work, the materiality of hatching. He’s seeing this figure through the lens and then reworking that image through his lived experience. Cezanne’s painting of this photo incorporates the world around and outside the photo, namely his memories, to enhance the experience of the lens with both lived time and his own existence. His painting becomes the emotional experience of the bather that Cezanne wants us to see – an everyman trying to step out of the ground, the Romantic individual, himself, the rising subject, us.


And so we come to an end of these Final Rites for Romanticism. Final because we no longer experience the same kind of ground, the same kind of visual need or visual acuity that is needed for a Romantic rebellion. An individual, an individual vision, can not, will not emerge. We are a society within the screen, we are constantly overwhelmed by the all encompassing electronic ground, in fact we are that ground, a hyper-reality made up of a sea of immaterial beings, bits of information. There are no longer individuals, we no longer have individual visions. We are nothing but connections, way points, collectives, pacts of constantly reforming and replicating information. We prefer the coolness of the ever expanding sea of electronic interaction, the endless flux of refining critique, the dematerialized vision. And it is that coolness of interaction which seduces us, keeps us in place while dispersing us all through the ethernet. We form ourselves for a moment, before the click, right there on the screen in front of us, and then we are gone, back into the ever-expanding ground. And because we now live there, we’ve forgotten about the world around the screen, we see it through our online experiences. Cezanne could not paint that Bather today. That figure is unfettered, individual, he rises out of the ground, he challenges us rather than placates us. Make no mistake, today there are very strong painters making wonderful Postmodern work, work that describes this very moment. But what we don’t see, and further, what we don’t want to see, is a strong challenge to that theoretical base. Something, an idea, a vision, that doesn’t become reactionary, but that is alive with the world when we emerge back into our fleshy selves, when we notice the world that isn’t broadcasted, that isn’t relayed through the lens, that isn’t programmed. That changed world and that different perspective may be where we can begin to discover a new Romantic critique.

“There are no more actors or spectators, everyone is immersed in the same reality, in the same revolving responsibility, in the same destiny, which is only the completion of a collective desire. Here again, we are not far from the Stockholm Syndrome: we are hostages of information, but we secretly acquiesce to our captivity.” Event and Non-Event By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Stuart Kendall