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I found Peter Schjeldahl's New Yorker piece on Brice Marden interesting, not so much because I like Marden (which I do), but for its evocation of the days when "abstract painting used to be the prow of art history", and of "how much people used to care" about it. I think I was talking to Jim about this, after viewing Diti's paintings. I was reminiscing about the days when her work, which treads a line between representation and non-objectivity, would have been objectionable in some ideological camps. I don't think these battle lines matter much any more. I was in art school during the waning years of that era, which ultimately came to an end in the 80s, under a tide of Expressionism, Europeanism, and self-consciously dumb art. I can still remember the sheer thrill of commitment; the pride one took in adhering to the most obscure and obdurate argument, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some people rebelled against the intellectual pressure that was applied. It was like having the Inquisition sit you down in front of two virtually identical monochrome paintings and you had to explain why one was great and the other was not just bad, but a moral abomination.
As a student, most of this came down to me in an oblique manner, but I did have one great teacher, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, who talked about this sort of thing straightforwardly. He was a rakish Brit who came on like William F. Buckley doing Oscar Wilde. He wrote an Art Forum cover piece on Marden, comparing his monochromes to Cézanne, which was a notable brick in the edifice of both their reputations. He really made ideas exciting, and if he used his caustic wit to trash something you liked, the ego damage could be severe. A few times he brought in his friend, the poet David Shapiro. He was also a formidable intellectual, but of a more tolerant sort. He argued convincingly for "pluralism", which to me meant giving full and fair consideration to all sorts of art (through actual experience), before coming to any final judgements. But we weren't going to just suspend judgement.
Today we have multiculturalism and political correctness, which may be corrective, but too often dispense with the intellectual underpinnings which should allow a pluralist to make a few judgements here and there. The art world is a duller and dumber place than it was in the 70s, albeit more tolerant. I'd say tolerance is a good thing, but it depends on what you're tolerating.
Anyway, Jeremy is still out there, though his voice is not heard so widely. He was purged from Parsons before my senior year, because all his students stopped painting still lives and started painting squares. Betraying his mentors and sleeping with the coeds didn't help either. I think he ended up in California where he has influenced new generations of student seekers. For all his hard-ass intellectualism, he has a great take on the subversive uses of pleasure and beauty, which continues to influence me, in epicurian as well as aesthetic matters. You can get an idea of his style from these two excerpts, and here's a hilarious review featuring a knock-out of Jerry Saltz. Gotta pick up his latest.
Oh, and Schjeldahl should know that Ryman tops Marden. I mean, you might rather look at a Marden, but that's hardly the point. As for Olitski, he's just the American extension of Western Imperialism, and obviously a moral abomination. (Just kidding; I'm a pluralist, honest…)