Fly on the Wall – Yearning for Relaxation

“Over the past hundred and thirty years and more the best new painting and sculpture (and the best new poetry) have in their time proven a challenge and a trial to the art lover — a challenge and a trial as they hadn’t used to be. Yet the urge to relax is there, as it’s always been. It threatens and keeps on threatening standards of quality. (It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.) That the urge to relax expresses itself in changing ways does but testify to its persistence. The “postmodern” business is one more expression of that urge. And it’s a way, above all, to justify oneself in preferring less demanding art without being called reactionary or retarded (which is the greatest fear of the newfangled philistines of advancedness).” [Clement Greenberg Modern and Postmodern]

Rothko was disdainful about the art movements that came after the New York School – “We worked for years to get rid of all that.” Pollock once said of the young punk, Larry Rivers, “I don’t care how much he smudges it, it’s still realism.” He probably would have said the same of Gerhard Richter’s early photographic figuration. De Kooning once told Warhol “You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work!” Andy later said to a friend, “Oh, well, I always loved his work.” What would de Kooning have thought of Sigmar Polke? In the 60s Europe reclaimed painting and began deviating from the pathways of American Modernism. They redefined how we understood and how we used abstraction. European artists used the innovations of the New York School and combined them with new interpretations of Surrealism (Miro’s experimentation), Da-Da (Picabia’s insouciance) and Expressionism (from just before the war) among other little known Modernist experiments. And “all that” began showing up in painting once again.

Ross Bleckner Architecture of the Sky 1989
Ross Bleckner’s work is taut with contradic­tions. His paintings are among the most spiritu­al we have (though he shies away from the word), yet at the same time the surfaces are visceral, pocked and bubbling with oils, wax and metallic pigments and built up through superimposed layers of paint. He resurrected years too late (or too early) Op Art, a movement that was stillborn in any event, and yet he seems devoid of irony and incapable of camp and outright hostile to historicism. (“Everybody’s so exhausted that nobody can really imagine making art that has even a glint of originality left in it,” he once said disapprovingly. “I don’t think that’s why one should retreat into past art.”) Despite this resistance to history, his own paint­ings make sense only when read in a context of—or as allusions to—predecessors as diverse as Barnett Newman, Odilon Redon, El Greco, and Veronese. [Edmund White on Ross Bleckner]

Ross Bleckner’s paintings feel like Europe – and by that I mean there’s something secretive and pensive about them. He steals from European visual history in such delicious ways – Redon, El Greco, Veronese. In addition to the handworked beauty of his geometries there’s a lot of Old World history moving beneath the surface of this New World painting. Ross’s architectures gives us the illusion of an Optical geometric surface, but that gets compromised with his illusions. We can see below the Modernist surface and the simplistic architectural structure. There’s something more powerful and unknown in those depths. Ross’s wonderful surfaces are pushed, moved, and shaped from below. “I have always thought of paintings as skin, in a sense holding things back, in place, existing tensely over that that it represses. The painter then x-rays parts that the skin covers and uncovers them. The metaphor is figurative (skin pro­tecting the fragility of that that it conceals) but I want the result to be abstract…” [Ross Bleckner]

Julian Schnabel Red Painting 1979
There was a time when some American artists thought they didn’t have to go to Europe anymore and that art was something in the present, not from the past. Someone like de Kooning sought freedom by coming to New York and getting rid of his historical baggage. But the fact of the matter is that he had looked at all those old paintings: Whether he wanted to get away from them or not, he had still seen them. So when I went to Europe, I didn’t look at a lot of contemporary painting. I was really looking at the masters, going to different churches and historical buildings: I needed to see these things in the flesh. But it’s true that when I started thinking about painting Christ on the cross, it wasn’t a popular motif back home. Instead, there was talk about painting being dead.[Julian Schnabel in conversation with Max Hollein 2003]

Clement Greenberg felt American artists had given in to Europe, to the academies, and he was adamant that nothing could match the best of the New York School. He continued to promote AbEx (which was easy to do) and Color Field (which wasn’t) even as painting languished in an unsolvable endgame. But Clem could not accept that artists, especially painters, had moved on. His judgment of the quality of their work and the artists who made it was draconian and disdainful. Clem claimed that artists were relaxing, moving away from rigor, taste and quality. He felt that they were avoiding the heavy historical and philosophical work needed to create great painting. Basically, this kind of art was lazy. To Clem everything Postmodern was minor art, and if you read his full polemic (and I highly recommend that you do – link to the article is above) – he thought that Postmodernism was not even the best kind of minor art.

Julian Schnabel (one of Clem’s “naughty” painters) was the most European of the American painters in those early days. In fact he still might be to this very day. He had a real sense of what was happening to painting in the 70s, and he took nearly everything that the German painters were doing on board. This was a match made in heaven! Julian’s brash work broke through Clem’s endgame headache and he changed all the rules for American painting. In an interview wih Max Hollein (see above) Julian leads us through his Germanic encounters, “I had moved back to New York from Texas in 1973 and was painting while doing odd jobs, driving a cab, cooking, and so on. I met a German artist named Ernst Mitzka at Max’s Kansas City. He had two best friends, Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke, who came to New York in 1974. We all got along well—once we drove to Philadelphia to see the Duchamps at the museum. Blinky’s work, with his little aluminum triangles and little blue objects, was very different from what I was doing, but I liked his attitude. Later, when he died, I went to Germany and stayed at Imi Knoebel’s house. And I stayed with Sigmar in 1978 when I had my first show in Germany, with Gerald Just at Galerie Dezember in Düsseldorf.” [Julian Schnabel in conversation with Max Hollein 2003]

I remember seeing for the very first time, in 1975 some raw black paintings by Anselm Kiefer. I found no way to respond to them. It took time to adjust to their utter differentness. The same happened with Kounellis. Then I began to understand that more was happening there than just another shift in style. Obviously these artists had found sources of inspiration that had led them to their profoundly different expressions. Once this was clear, that this new art from Europe was establishing itself with undeniable power, then the position of American art also changed: it became an alternative. Precisely that new relevant balance of power between two artistic practices became the central narrative of our documentary exhibition.” [Rudi Fuchs on the controversy about Documenta and Julian Schnabel]

The Global art market has pretty much settled all of this theoretical pushing and pulling, and we don’t usually talk of Zeitgeists or Greenbergs in any real way these days. Nor do we argue over histories or ideas very much – unless of course you duct tape a banana to the wall or someone has labeled you a Zombie. Most artists just seem to want to make a living without changing the rules. They are busy branding, producing and traveling around the art fairs. And the international art economies that have fostered this new world have worn down our differences and made the old arguments about quality, style or meaning seem naive and unnecessary. But back in the 70s and 80s artists took up the challenge of the Modernist endgame and initiated new ideas about the future of painting.


  • gwh12

    And now that taste has been levelled, many a collector is staring at, or walking quickly past, the works they bought that are empty of feeling or meaning, to make more money, which at least is a rewarding activity in its way. Or establishing warehouse-like buildings where the detritus of their purchases are hung, in the name of a benefit to humanity. We are already in the Dark Ages, in the Monasteries …. the monks are working on scrolls and psalters ….
    I welcome it, it’s a relief. It’s a way for art to live …

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