FLY ON THE WALL – Dead But Won’t Lay Down

“In a period epitomized by Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), striving young Europeans shook off the war-dimmed legacies of their national cultures for the confident flash of things American. New York Abstract Expressionism and Pop art and, a bit later, minimalism became transatlantic lodestars, eclipsing the School of Paris—whose last avatar, the fantastical self-inventor Yves Klein, partly led the way. From then on, though the New York art world wouldn’t fully admit it for nearly two decades, the most acute ramifications of American styles and ideas played out in Europe, especially West Germany.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Blinky Palermo]

Majerus “Europe-USA” 1991
While based in Berlin during his adult life, Majerus visited the United States a number of times, significantly while on a yearlong residency in Los Angeles in 2000–01. His fascination with pop culture, the American landscape, consumerism, and violence are major themes of the “L.A. Paintings” series, which includes Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (2001) and splash bombs 2 (2002). [Michel Majerus Progress Aesthetics ICA 2022]

There are only two real problems. They are your history and your oblivion. How you speak about such things, well that’s up to you. Twombly’s painting below marks time and place – Lex 2-28-00 – while telling a story of Modern abstraction, ancient legend and personal history. The text locates him, holds him in place in order to wrench a buried secret out of this old man’s life. This particular painting is part of a cycle of paintings about leaving home to find something, to learn something, to test oneself in the world. As we complete Twombly’s Sesostrios cycle we understand that there can be no going back, that the history has been written, judgment is inevitable, and the price for this journey into our unknown selves and secretive pasts will be paid in blood and oblivion. We also realize that this kind of abstract painting can only manifest through a fraught intimacy with Europe.

Cy Twombly, Coronation of Sesostris, 2000
At the same time, this expanded, open-ended process of matching forms with meanings, by means of projection and cued invention, constantly turns abstractions into representations in a broadened sense, and defines the nature of abstract art in our time. In early modern art, abstraction was often promoted (or scorned) as a final destination, an ultimate endpoint of art, the culmination of a progressive divorce from appearances, or the terminal cancellation of everything that art required. But by now we have seen art declared “dead” too many times, and we’re weary of going to fake funerals. (My colleague Robert Storr taught a course in abstract painting a few years ago that he called “Dead but Won’t Lay Down”) In our model of history, there is not any progress at all, in the sense of straight-line, cumulative refinement toward a fixed goal. We have seen the end of the line become a departure station frequently enough to understand that even the seemingly purest abstraction that looks like a fat zero is in fact often an egg waiting to hatch. Not the period at the end of the story, but an ellipsis … (to be continued) within a looping and branching system that ties together a wide range of visual representation: loquacious, laconic, dumb, and all stops in between. Within that system, the abstract artist may colonize a new realm of feeling, as Twombly does, unique to his or her forms, and may also invent a new alphabet which a great many others—artists, designers, filmmakers, and so on—can use to represent the world in very different ways. [Kirk Varnedoe Pictures of Nothing]

Clement Greenberg was adamant that American artists would not have to go to Europe again. He thought America would create a Golden Era of new imagery and abstraction that would unfold over time and in line with the rules he had set out. But it didn’t work out that way. Painting in the US went underground in an effort to get away from his dictates. Then the Europeans came storming over to the States to repossess painting like pissed off lenders collecting on past due payments. They reclaimed their visual heritage and left the American customization intact. Bigger, faster, stronger, freer, brasher and smarter – this act of repossession changed the direction and flavor of Modernism and made painting exciting again (where’s my pink baseball cap?). Varnedoe is correct – painting works best as an ellipsis – broad in approach, open-ended in outcomes and catholic in taste. As we have learned from the Europeans – painting is far more enticing when it acts more like a courtesan and less like a priest.

As an example – there was one painting from the recent Albert Oehlen show that really stayed with me. It was isolated in a room away from the circus tent exhibition in the main rooms. That painting, unlike the others, really broke over itself. Tore itself to shreds. It’s jury-rigged, shattered and torn rather than erased or over painted. There are no heroic gestures, no scrubbed surfaces, no natural processes or great undertakings. There isn’t even an “avant garde” stance of delimitation or theory. The imagery is neither good or bad, abstract or figurative. The work requests that one engage deeper in its mystery. And as I stood looking at the painting it seemed to me that this work was showing us what it’s like to engage in a charged and changed idea of the process of abstraction more in line with how we experience our AI world. What I was looking at was an example of a dead painting that won’t lay down. And I won’t forget it. At least that’s how it seems as I think about the seriousness of Europe, the openess of ellipses and the allure of courtesans.

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