Rococo – RoPOMO

Jerry’s latest finally acknowledges what we’ve been getting at all along. POMO is the academy.

Much of this work takes visual cues from the photographs that appeared in art magazines of the sixties and seventies, translating that smudgy halftone quality to three dimensions. These artists seem to want to crawl into the skins of Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, whose work did intrusive things to the large and familiar, and a preapproved roster from the so-called “greatest generation.” It’s a cool school based on an older cool school, and it gains attention the way a child of a celebrity does. Many artists of this stripe went to art school and have apparently internalized the beliefs of their teachers, using strategies common when those instructors were young. They’re making art in ways that their teachers thought art should be made. This is an Oedipal-aesthetic feedback loop, a death wish. 

It isn’t enough to talk of Mannerism any longer in connection with Postmodern art. Art has become far too academic, at best thrice removed from originality and innovation. It is an art developed, manufactured and processed for the entrenched collector classes. Artists are educated by their institutions to satisfy their tastes. This kind of art is not made to challenge art, but to challenge saleability. We are in an age of a new Rococo.

My appreciation of the power residing in systems started with an awareness of how institutions create mechanisms that translate ideology – say, the causes of evil – into operating procedures, such as the Inquisition’s witch hunts. In other word, my focus has widened considerably through a fuller appreciation of the ways in which situational conditions are created and shaped by higher-order factors – systems of power. Systems, not just dispositions and situations, must be taken into account in order to understand complex behavior patterns. The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo 

Rococo is a fawning type of mannered art developed for a monied aesthetic – a refinement of the kitchen sink aesthetic of the Baroque. It is familiar academic work ramped up by superficiality, theatricality, decoration and stylization – a “top down” form of art making. Today our Rococo moment developed from mannered Postmodernism first seen in the 1960s, later whipped up to a fine frothy sludge in the 1980s. Of course in our world we do it with different materials in a different time, but it’s the same mechanics. It’s all about one-upmanship. Bigger, uglier, dumber, faster – we just keep upping the ante on the same deal of cards. This type of art is about maintaining and filibustering. Baudrillard defined this as hyperreality – where consciousness can no longer distinguish the difference between the real and the fantastic. And further that the fantastic world defines reality. Sooner or later the wrench gets thrown into the engine – for the Rococo it was a revolution and the enlightenment. For us, well, it may be an economic meltdown and a rediscovery of vision. But it has to be artists driving that change, and those of us who find the current “practices” of art distasteful must be clever enough to find that new vision.

I hope to post part six of our series on abstract figuration shortly. Stay tuned!


Why is it that whenever we read about an artist’s work these days we get the obligatory backstory about how much physical and fiscal effort went into putting the damned thing out? Cranes, semi-trucks, ships, airplanes and now helicopters. There are also the endless body counts – 151 assistants, 84 employees, 300 assemblers, 228 fabricators etc etc. The Egyptian pyramids received less press. Art has become an accounting game. Maybe we should just consider publishing the accounts ledgers of the blue chippers. The largest balance (Net) wins the prize for World’s Greatest Artist!

The tower was built in sections at Mr. Burden’s studio in Topanga Canyon, and then pieces of it — including the largest one, the base, which had to be lifted out by helicopter — were taken to Los Angeles to be assembled. Ms. Steiner, who saw the piece upright during tests before its cross-country truck journey, said she loved it particularly because of the ways it pits the mind and the eye against each other. “The fact that it is both a model and the height of a real building is bizarre,” she said. “It is simultaneously right and wrong from a traditional building perspective. And so it starts to play tricks on you.”

The art world has achieved its Spinal Tap moment. When something is right and wrong simultaneously there is nowhere left to turn…except maybe 11. Just listen to the sustain!

Rome and Venice

St Roch in Hospital

I wanted to discuss a couple of my favorites from my recent trip to Italy. When you’re there you become keenly aware of the differences in the feel of each city, each cuisine, each dialect – your senses change. These differences define the cultures and the artists. I am always happy to look at painting in Venice (in fact I’m most happy to do anything in Venice.) Even the bad stuff is fun – in Rome & Florence I get tired. It has to do with sensibility. Don’t get me wrong – there’s great stuff everywhere – but I have my favorites. So we’ll discuss a couple here –

Tintoretto painted St. Roch in the Hospital in 1549. Here you can see all the working spaces that Caravaggio would explore 50 years later. This long low painting is a marvel of compostion, light and form. The figures all emerge from the darkness of the room, bathed in that flash of raking light, they are common men and women worked from models, the perspectives – pushing into our viewing space. It is a controlled directed moment, and we are meant to focus on the Saint who preforms the healing miracle, but we are constantly pulled back to look again at the figures surrounding this defining moment and see the lives that are to be affected by this miracle. The event remains at a distance as all eyes look up to take it in – you could miss it otherwise – it just sort of happens in the darkness. Roch would be lost except for the bright Hollywood glow about his head – just another dude in a room. Tintoretto, who painted for the believers, did what was required for his patrons and viewers – he wasn’t above a cheap visual effect. But from our current perspective just look at the forward visual thinking going on in this painting – miles ahead of the Mannerists in Florence and Rome. The figure seated on the lower right pushes his leg into our space – a wonderful foreshortening of the form – the exhausted woman being picked up to witness the miracle pushes us further into the composition as we follow the folds of her red dress. In the deep background on the left we see light behind some dark figures hinting at further intrigue. It’s like we walked into something momentous by mistake.

Martyrdom of MatthewThis is Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. It’s one of the paintings that turned Rome on its head. According to Peter Robb “M in his first essay at Matthew Killed took an approach that had nothing to do with his own instincts and everything to do with the fluent and graceful and very mannered fresco style which Cesari was just then covering the walls all over Rome. It was a mistake… it implied a deployment of all those geometric arts of perspetive and proportion that Del Monte and Galileo were so concerned with in painting… and that M had pointedly ignored – defied – in working out his own optical sense of bodies in space, modelled by light…”

This is the difference between Venice and Rome – physicality, light and space. Caravaggio was all about being in close, and he could find precedent for this visual idea not in the mannered figure/landscape models of Florence and Rome, but in the visceral, fleshy incarnations he had seen in Venice. The Romans who had admired Titian and company, but with qualifications, were suddenly confronted by this visual affront to their very well mannered sensibilities. It’s also interesting to blow up the figure groupings in the above Tintoretto – you will begin to get an even more thorough understanding of the spaces Caravaggio would later be exploring. This is a vision of touch and a vision of intimacy. Robb quotes Mancini –

“You can’t put the whole crowd of people enacting a history in to a room lit from a single window. You can’t have someone laughing or crying or walking and get them to freeze while you copy them. Figures done like this are strong but they lack movement and feeling and grace…”

The distance required to find grace and movement is the key to Mancini’s lack of vision. When you’re in close you see none of that refinement. When you’re in close you’re caught, part of the expression, and you are not above the frey. Caravaggio’s work implicates the viewer, just as Tintoretto’s work does as well. For the refined to be “knee deep in it” is just too much visual impact to bare. Regardless of Mancini’s criticism, the paintings of Matthew were a huge success – they sent the flacid art world of the time into a tizzy. The Mannerists knew that their jig was up, and those who wanted to survive tried to change their style over night. The idea that painting was now tied to a more tactile sort of vision shook the courtier artists right down to their fashionable coulottes. The truth is that periodically painting has had to relive and adapt to this sort of changing of vision as well as the changing of the garde (avante – that is). For those of us involved in abstract painting – we know that these times, our times, are demanding that we find our way.. It’s an exciting moment and long overdue.

Jerry At The Met

Yesterday got an email from NY Magazine with a link to Jerry Saltz’s first (?) video webcast. So a quick critique! As I always suspected he’s a bit of fun. I don’t know Jerry but I’ve heard him on artcritical and instantly got the sense that he has that kind of fun/annoying lightness that most folks enjoy on TV – in other words “personality.” You don’t mind learning something from someone that enjoys what they’re doing. Jerry’s almost there as far as the camera is concerned. “It” comes through in a couple of the segments. He’s fun in the beginning talking about Pre-Christian art, but he stiffens up in the European paintings gallery, though his Caravaggio bit got better. It’s great when he takes a quick gander at the wall tag making sure he’s telling us the right title – Denial (quick look) of St. Peter – oopsie! His Modern gallery romp is a bit “art teacher” – even going so far as to use the term – “post-coital” when discussing Picasso. And he totally loses the thread with Damian Hirst’s shark calling it “realism to the “nth” degree.” But that is a content discussion, and that’s not what this is about. As far as content goes Jerry just can’t help himself – hey it’s his gig…

He’s got to work on his presentation and get a bit more comfortable with the camera. The truculent “grabbing hand” gestures look affected and a bit desperate – smaller more elegant movement would translate easier and make him seem at ease – like he’s not trying so hard. I can’t stand the pyramid hand thing where one spreads one’s fingers wide and rests them finger tip to finger tip – it smacks of condescension. Stop it Jerry! If nothing else put your hands in your pockets and keep the camera high or take a few lessons from a talking head like Wolf Blitzer. Remember – the lens warps space in a weird way – when you put your hands into the fore camera space they look huge and menacing – it scares small children and animals. TV is about intimacy and seduction – remember that and you’ve got the secret. The medium is unforgiving of anything that is too much – too much verbage – too much movement – too much insistence etc. If you act like a 1950s teenager trying to make out with his reluctant girlfriend in the back of Daddy’s DeSoto you won’t get to second base. Less scripted monologuing and more chatting – it works for you. We enjoy the informal patter – the “pretty good” bit about the Roman mural – good – the pompous obviously-scripted-to-make-a-point shark stuff – bad. On TV one never has to prove a point – hey you’re on TV – the point has been proven. Enjoyable effort – B+. (It would have been great to write that in that annoying thick red pencil instructors always use.)
One last thing – Welcome to the You Tube generation!

Cake Or Death

“There is nothing new in our culture which can’t be faddified. What we want now is a major artist—a Manet, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, or Beuys—who will manifest durable truths at the core of inevitable hypes and hyperboles. If none such appears, that will be a valuable datum. It will help us adjust to the happenstance that, once and finally, our particular civilization is spent.” Peter Schjeldahl writes in his review of the New New Museum’s show “After Nature.” Naturally such a position taken by a major critic causes the art world to stomp around, spitting and heaving in apoplectic spasms. “Surely not! This is Outrageous!” But like all small things that cause big problems – there just might be something there…

In the wonderful Charlie Finch’s short and specific lament about the influence of money and power in the art world he states…”Yet the hope of the worldlies with that artist, who has no name, whose work cannot yet be described or purchased. Unknownness and unknowingness have become, by necessity, the last refuge of creation, the breeze blowing through a crack underneath the solid diamond doors, to build a museum out of air.” Charlie is yearning for a visual savior. Hell, it’s beginning to sound almost biblical – When will he/she come to turn out the money men from the temple?

I think we have artists working who are trying to push beyond the influence of the Postmodern. Jackie SaccoccioGiles Lyonand Michael Zahn are artists who show their dissatisfaction with the academies in different ways. They don’t have super powers, nor are they saviors, but they are solid, real and interesting in new ways, with new ideas and wonderful work. There are other artists not in NYC who are questioning what their work is and how it can be. Carla Knopp, struggling away on her blog, in the studio, and at her day job confronts Postmodern issues and adds a thoughtful voice about life as an artist in the early 21st century. Then there are the more established artists, like Joyce Pensato and Chris Martin, who somehow missed out on the POMO bandwagon because they worked their paintings a bit differently – not all of one nor of the other. There are many good artists hard at work that don’t get the publicity or the shows or the accolades. They are working in Charlie’s “last refuge of creation.” Lastly, I’ve been laying out my own struggles here on this blog and in the studio, getting past an art world view that I find visually stultifying and thoughtfully regressive. I believe our culture isn’t spent yet – serious contemplation about it is just being left out of the mix in the hot pursuit of filthy lucre. Was it Goddard that said if a commercial was longer than 30 seconds it would have to tell the truth? And in commercial times truth gets left out in order to make money. Hopefully, we’ll be speaking with a few more of the hard-working folks who are trying to find truth in the coming season as our new series of posts on Popular Culture and art begins to unfurl. Take heart critics and cynics! There really is more than cake or death!

On The Kusp-it

I’ve been reading “The End of Art” by Donald Kuspit and enjoying it immensely. I’m really heartened by the fact that someone in a position of renown has come out so strongly against POMO thematics. He attacks it from a psychological point of view – going deep into the Freudian poopy-smeary end (”insert” your joke here…) Really, it is a fantastic look at the warped intention of fame culture and the insidious effect it’s had in the making of art.

Some of the most salient info in the book is found in Kuspit’s steady battle with Allan Kaprow. In the end though I think Kuspit misses part of the point of his own critique of Kaprow (in regards to the art market.) Art has become a business peopled by trained art professionals making a product. Kaprow was intent that life and art should be the same experience – but instead of life becoming more of an art – art has become more “life.” Artists graduate with advanced degrees like any professional. They must have an industry in order to ply their trade – and that is what has happened – art entered the economic life of America. Following this idea Kaprow’s thesis that art and life are one becomes true. Economic institutional systems develop a professional class that creates products for exchange value. Everything becomes property – a painting by Warhol, an installation by Buchel, an art fair in Miami, an idea – all are for sale, all can wind up in court, anyone with capital can have one or more. As with any product so with art – art and life are one – leveled by the flow of the market. Whether or not this is what Kaprow’s intention was I don’t know – he may have meant something more philosophical.

The truth is most of our lives are regulated through our pocketbooks – we “live” in America by how we spend. (I shop therefore I am.) In art we see this leveling of the art experience by the numbers of works done in series – prints, graphics, editions, sets, etc. Making the product available to more people who can buy. Art as product is art that is a part of everyday shopping life. Rather than Kuspit’s need for an art work to act as a transformative encounter, POMO art is being produced as an entertaining luxury product. “The artist was once thought of as sacred – he had a spark of God’s creativity in him – but Warhol’s artist is a businessman, profaning everything sacred and creative by putting a price on it, as Marz said. Warhol is a born salesman; with him art loses its mystery and openly becomes a commodity for sale.” And as the returning hordes from Miami come back I’m sure we’ll be reading all about that sale…. unfortunately for Kuspit, Kaprow’s art and life are one.

Kuspit wants to hold on to the sacred. He wants transformation. He wants something stronger than the market imperative in the work. It’s a strong critique and worth the read. But I have to say again that his prescriptive leaves a lot to be desired. His idea of the New Old Master is reactionary and visually feeble. The idea of transformative experience in front of an April Gornik or Julie Heffernan painting is just ridiculous. In fact most of the artists he chooses to champion are institutional academics one and all. Ok they are sound professional painters with excellent technique, but they lack real vision or radical thought about our time. These are self involved painters working in traditional visual modes. I think the problem with this prescriptive lies in his idea of reviving past traditions. Instead of looking ahead he looks back. Each of the artists Kuspit points to uses the tropes of Postmodernism to develop works of old fashioned effects – juxtapositions of disparate images, lens based reproduction, hyper-materiality and contextually historical references. Basically these are new versions of old ideas and the core of POMO theoretics. It seems to me that he completely reverses himself. Not once does he address the visual issues of our times – pervasive media, electronic programming, instant communication or lens culture. Rather than questioning the idea of “revival” he insists that we do – revival that is. Shame really.

As we have said on other occassions visual issues are not being dealt with in the art world. And unfortunately this is true even among those who seem to know better. Still I recommend you give the book a try – Mr. Kuspit has developed an insightful critique of our time.


  1. It seems to me that your assumptions are as flawed as the assumptions you criticize in Mr. Kuspit. “Kuspit wants to hold on to the sacred. He wants transformation. He wants something stronger than the market imperative in the work.” Gosh this seems to me to be a constructive expectation for art. The writings & research of Ellen Dissanyake especially in her book Homo Aestheticus) point to the need for the arts in every human life, a need the POMO &/or Contemporary visual art world does not fill. Instead the art world is stuck in a Duchampian Rut. A rut filled with Thesaurus-rex texts, magazines, et. al…. while the truly brave opt out of the ring around the rosy.

    “Not once does he address the visual issues of our times – pervasive media, electronic programming, instant communication or lens culture” whoop te do!!! Visual issues of our time???? WHo cares. Since Rembrandt at least the most important artists, and their most important work are usually overlooked by their contemporaries. Why do you assume that you can tell the difference now.

    Many practicing artists have chosen the way of Tacitus. Rather than the way of Warhol, who chose to hide his Catholicism and some real talent under a basketfull of BS.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi Floyd, Welcome to Henri!
    I agree that Art, especially painting, has to be something better than Postmodern visual theoretics and Warhol’s business practices. But in the case of Mr. Kuspit’s theories on the New Old Masters I have to disagree with you. Nothing that he states in his antidote to POMO painting or vision is new, the artists he champions are tied to a 19th Century rear guard academic realism. They are competent professional artists, but they fail to move beyond that. What we are striving for is something new, some way to visually innovate, and we believe that this can not be done using institutional ideas and academic styles. We feel that Donald Kuspit’s critique is fascinating and insightful. His prescriptive is not. We don’t know of Ellen Dissanyake’s work so we’ll take a look. Thanks!
    PS. Don’t opt out – We need more voices and visions!

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

Point Man – Richard Polsky

You might want to have a look at Richard Polsky’s recent post on Artnet. I think it relates specifically to a lot of the issues we have been broaching here, especially about the effects of electronic technology on art, and the ways that we incorporate those changes into our art lives. In this article he lays out a short history of the art market locating a few moments of real importance that changed the way art is bought and sold, and how it became, in essence, a commodity. Art used to be a slow business, particularly regarding the building of reputations, markets and careers. Today it’s different, and Richard is astounded at the speed at which art can be marketed, packaged and transacted. “…Almost equally inconceivable is the way that technology has transformed the art market…Now you can shoot the image with a digital camera, transfer it to your computer, and send it — in five minutes.” He is very concerned at how this sort of business process can be used to manipulate the reputations and prices of particular artists – especially if a group of collectors finds it beneficial to protect and increase the value of their investments. This makes the process a top down one, allowing collectors to determine what is or isn’t art. I find this extremely interesting because, Mr. Polsky is intimately involved in the buying and selling of art. A few years ago he published a yearly ratings compendium on artists that read like a stock market report – buy, sell or hold. Some of these wound up on Artnet and are informative to read. For the most part his business advice has been right on the money – so to speak. He also wrote a wonderful book that unfolded like an Agatha Christie mystery entitled “I Bought Andy Warhol.”In that book he exposed a lot of the exceptionally bad behavior that happens in a power hungry and paranoid art world. It’s not quite Hunter Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in LV, but the straight world looks different when the acid kicks in. As far as I know – Mr. Polsky’s writing of his book was not mind-altered in quite the same way…. Still, the surreal world that we artists create and inhabit is clearly delineated. Finally, I’ll leave you with Richard’s assessment of where we are and where we may be heading…
“Like the publishing and music industries, the art business has become strictly bottom line. At the risk of sounding cynical, money has never been more important; connoisseurship and independent thinking never less so. There’s also no sense of history. Anyone who entered the field during the current Chelsea era rarely has a clue as to who their ancestors were that built the art world.”

Hell On Wheels – Finale and Reboot

Here’s the scoop on our WordPress problems. After some wonderful assistance from the folks at WordPressHelp.Org we’ve been able to clean up and restart the HAM. Mark Rabideau was very patient and generous with his time and expertise. The bad news he discovered was that the database was gone – along with a year’s worth of posts. The good news is we had nearly all of them stored in html on various computers – so we’ve been uploading to the database, and will re-post them again this week. All the fantastic interviews are intact, and of the varous hard work series we’ve posted, we are missing only Part 4 of Figuring It Out. So the good news for us is that most all of the lost content is still around.

We’ll be continuing our Popular Culture series this week with the promised post on High and Low. Please be patient as we get this thing back in the fast lane once more! Exciting Times Lie Ahead!

Hell on Wheels

Well Folks, What can I say? The past couple of weeks have been a computer nightmare. According to helpful souls we were either hacked or upgraded out of existence. The many fixes of the blog (we tried desperately to revive the patient) were unsuccessful. Hopefully we will be able to move that version of Henri to another site soon and we’ll link there for older articles or we may be able to stash back here. Please be patient. In the meantime we will use this loaner (as it were) while our porsche is being repaired! My frustration with WordPress and my own lack of computer knowledge knows no bounds! Anyway we will continue with our series on Popular Culture in haste! I am currently re-writing two of the posts lost in the horror of the computer netherworld and those will be up later this week (hopefully sooner.) The always fabulous Mario Naves will be discussing the vagaries of Branding, Style and Fame with me in an upcoming post and we hope to get a few more souls on board as well. In the meantime…

The season in Chelsea and around NY has started with a whimper. Never has so much been made about so little. I think this has a lot to do with the current economic and political season that has begun as well. If you don’t live in NYC it’s kind of hard to understand, but there are so many millionaires per square inch in this town that you are hard pressed not to step on one as you leave your front door. Right now those folks are QUAKING in their boots. By the new year this town will be in a new place, and there will be a lot of folks without the means to participate. Investment bankers, traders, funders and the like are looking for the door and loading their pockets (with tax dollars) as they go. Our little art world is about to drown in their flop sweat. For those of us who saw the early 90s, that’s gonna look tame in comparison. What we don’t need is another period of self loathing and PC installation work – so try to keep that in mind as we go, please….

Don’t be surprised if we change the look of this thing. I liked the very simple format we had, but alas, it no longer works with this version….We’ll try to keep you appraised of what’s what. If things go wonky again just check us at our main page Henri.