Opportunism, Narcissism, or Plain Stupidity

Phillip Guston Key 1980

“There’s no simple reason why artists and entertainers decide to move off the beaten path, but in every one of the cases listed above, the sudden career shifts were attacked by critics and fans alike. As punishment for abandoning the forms that brought them acclaim (folk, basketball, comedy, Abstract Expressionism), they were accused of opportunism, narcissism, or plain stupidity.
In one of his earliest pieces as Time magazine’s art critic, Robert Hughes sneered at the perceived anachronism of Guston’s Klansmen—figures, he suggested, that could provide no real insight into the present moment. And in a masterpiece of snark composed for the New York Times, Hilton Kramer called Guston “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum,” the implication being that the artist was affecting a crude, “primitive” style simply because such a style had become trendy….
Kramer’s remarks say relatively little about Guston and a lot about the New York critical establishment. Kramer and his peers were writing in an era when the logic of the stock market had begun to infect collectors and critics alike—an era when, as Hughes himself would later complain, novelty was the highest virtue and art that “looked ‘radical’ without being so” was praised to death. In such a climate, there could be no nastier insult than to accuse an artist of reaching the finish line second.” [Jackson Arn on Philip Guston]

Brice Marden Couplet IV 1988-89

It happened first in his [Brice Marden’s] drawings, which often used a grid, then on little flat scraps of marble — one has a perforated edge that evokes a spiral notebook. By the mid 1980’s, skewed, off-kilter linear networks were angling their way across canvas. Mr. Marden had eliminated beeswax, thinned his paint and at first tied his brush to a long stick, which seemed to destabilize his natural facility, and then moved on to using long-handled brushes. In addition, he made overt revisions, scraping, rubbing out until the paintings filled with ghostly vibrating after-images that formed organic, crazy-quilt grids. Under the weight of so much change, and inspired by Chinese ink painting, his palette shrank back, toward gray.” [Roberta Smith on Brice Marden]

“Every artist who hopes to attain a major change of style, within abstraction especially, must prepare himself for a period in which he will have to “compromise with his own achievement.” During this period he can expect to lose friends and stop influencing youth, and discover that he has “fallen off,” “retreated,” experienced a “failure of nerve,” become confused. In a major change of style of this kind the artist experiences, furthermore, a degree of doubt that never assailed the strict style of his youth, because, by definition, work that compromises with his own achievement will often look, to himself and to others, like bad work, and he will seem to have forgotten all that he had taught earlier. To call such periods an “age of Surrealism” is not exact, but it does describe the loosening of the strictness that governed the age of intelligence, the admission into the work of any number of “compromises.” It is a matter of having taken things as far as possible, only to find oneself trapped in an outpost of art, with work threatening to come to a standstill, thin and uncreative. At such a point the artist must compromise with the logic of his own work in order to go on working at all—it is either that or remain a prisoner of his own achievement forever, face those sterile repetitions that stare at us from the late work of Rothko, Still, Braque, so many others.” [Philip Leider Stella Since 1970]

Frank Stella The Pacific 1988

But apart from Stella’s imitators, how can the phenomenon of his recent work be accounted for? If we remember that it was Stella’s earliest paintings which signaled to his colleagues that the end of painting had finally come (I am thinking f such deserters of the ranks of painting as Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris), it seems fairly clear that Stella’s own career is a prolonged agony over the incontestable implications of those works, as he has retreated further and further away from them, repudiating them more vociferously with each new series. The late seventies paintings are truly hysterical in their defiance of the black paintings; each one reads as a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come. Moreover it is no longer even as paintings that Stella’s new works argue so tenaciously for the continued life of the medium. The irony of Stella’s recent enterprise s that he is only able to point at painting from the distance of a peculiar hybrid object, an object which may well represent painting but certainly and not legitimately be a painting. [Douglas Krimp The End of Painting]

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