|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…)
I didn't know Gilbert-Rolfe was your teacher. He now teaches at the Art Center in Pasadena CA. I've been a fan of his writing since I heard him reading his paper "Seriousness and Difficulty in Criticism" at an Art Papers conference, around the time of the Mapplethorpe/NEA flap. He got hissed by someone in the audience for this statement:
I have suggested that resistance to difficulty in the work of art comes in three varieties: the innocent; the pious [i.e., the left]; the embittered [the right]. The point I should like to make is that while the innocent deserve our help, the left and the right deserve one another. There is, from the point of view of anyone actually interested in seriousness and difficulty, no significant difference between Andres Serrano and Jesse Helms. Indeed they need one another.
Here's another passage (worth quoting at length) from his essay Art Writing and Art School:
Contemporary art journals mirror the general culture inasmuch as they do not regard art as mysterious and alien, but as transparent and exhausted, and they converge with it in their desire to see and enjoy the subordination of the art object to that which it is said to have once been indifferent. In confirmation of this belief, most of the contemporary art that gets exhibited and written about is suspicious of art as such and is grounded in a counter-esthetic of, usually, one of two sorts -- Pop or Conceptualist.[emphasis supplied]
Right on. And he's able to say these things without sounding cynical or bitter. Just dry (very dry) analysis.
Schjeldahl's piece was vaguely offensive in its know-nothingism. Nothing new in the rhetoric of abstraction since the '70s? Beginning with NeoGeo in the '80s, there has been a rather strong movement to redefine abstraction in terms other than the old formal vs emotional dichotomy. I can name dozens of artists thinking about ways to address content--political, semiotic, pop-cultural--without resorting to an easy narrative strategy. Some of these people are among the top sellers in the market. As for Saltz, he's stuck between a scholar's rock and a hard place. For the past several years he's been pushing "girls taking pictures of girls" as the new avant garde (see Gilbert-Rolfe on art-magazine-inspired "populism") and giving lectures actively condemning abstraction. (At NYU a few years ago, he showed slides of current abstraction to students and said "If you're thinking of doing something like this, here's my phone number: call me, day or night, and I'll try to talk you out of it.") Yet he is respectful of the established order, and probably actually likes Marden's work. Result: a fence-straddling essay.
Well, each generation tends to see its coming of age moment as the last great event before everything went downhill. Sounds like both critics think that Marden was the guy who synthesized the "formal vs emotional dichotomy" thereby rescuing painting from mere objecthood. To them, he's post-Minimalist. What really has been done since, in terms of rhetorical (i.e. formal) advances in abstract painting? NeoGeo would seem to be the case in point, and Peter Halley the point man. He used the means of Minimalist painting to different ends, (arguably he made caricatures of 60s style paintings,) but I don't see where he made any formal breakthroughs, except that you had to read his texts to really make the paintings work (something Smithson had done for sculpture 15 years before). Sure, there are good abstract painters around, but most seem less ambitious as artists than Halley, even if more sincere as painters. For that matter, there are good landscape and figure painters, too. If any painters are making news, it's on the narrative level, not the rhetorical. Certainly nobody uses the term "advanced painting" anymore, the way Gilbert-Rolfe could when writing for Art Forum 30 years ago. He thinks Mary Boochever is a "very important" artist; what say you? And how about yourself? You use dated tropes: the modularity of Minimalism, the exploded cubist fracture of Pollock, but rendered in a different medium. How do you see yourself in relation to the tradition of abstract painting?
I don't agree that you had to read Halley's writing to understand his paintings. The writing helped to clarify the most straightforward interpretations: that the design of the paintings referred to architecture and graphic notation (ie flow charts); that the facture was pumped up ("hyperrealized," in Halleyspeak) compared to '60s painting (50 coats of paint where three would suffice, sharper edges, more optical vibration), and that there was an element of existential bathos in the form of the Roll-a-Tex granules added to the paint, which anyone (not just Halley) could relate to motel ceilings. Whether these are advances is surely a moot question, since after the excesses of Modernism we no longer look so hard for progress in art, but they are definitely differences, which Schjeldahl should be worldly enough to acknowledge. The injection of the social and the demotic into abstract painting inspired dozens of other good artists, many of whom emerged in the '90s. The exhibition Steve Di Benedetto and I were in, "post-hypnotic," collected a number of these practitioners (Jim Isermann, David Clarkson, Michelle Grabner, Sarah Morris, Tad Griffin) and I would also include Jeff Elrod, James Hyde, Carl Fudge, Pamela Fraser, Ruth Root, Monica Pierce, Nina Bovasso (the latter four rejecting heroic scale and themes in favor of the intimate and quirky). "post-hypnotic" traveled to about ten venues but as close as it got to New York was Boston, and as yet no local critic (that I'm aware of) has connected most of these artists.
As for me, I consider my work very much in this vein of coded abstract art, believing that the viewer can crack the code without the aid of a specific French theory. Where I part company with the rest is (a) I also do portraits and stupid cartoons, and (b) I'm not really committed to painting as a vehicle. Right now I'm more interested in mixing the old tropes with new ones engendered by recent art-making technology. (And unlike some "computer artists," I'm off the hook for pretensions to progress because the programs I use are dated, or strictly for amateurs.) Thanks for asking.
No offense to the fine artists mentioned, but the title "Post-Hypnotic" might suggest that they operate under the influence of a commanding style, which might also explain why I saw Kris wearing an "I Love Minimalism" shirt (large block letters, of course) given her by the aforementioned Ruth Root.
Your mother made a good point. "Semioptics" would have avoided the triple reading. Regarding "post-hypnotic," here's the first para of my catalog essay:
As a title for a show of latter-day optical art, "post-hypnotic" hits the bullseye on several counts, Obviously it's a sly double-entendre, referencing the subliminal messages long suspected to lurk within psychedelic-type art, while at the same time mocking the art world's mania for art historical labels. The pun, in turn, puts ironic quotation marks around the exhibit, allowing the artists to participate in a "movement" and at the same time distance themselves from those much-maligned (oversimplified, hegemonic, market-driven) groupings."p-h" was organized by Barry Blinderman, who ran another East Village gallery in the '80s, Semaphore, before moving to Illinois to run the gallery program at Illinois State U. He's much more loyal to the '80s version of "op" (Taaffe, Halley, Bleckner) than I am. The "op show" I organized in 1998 actually pitted artists working on a shoestring in the '90s against the legacy of slick '80s producers. I would have preferred to have the "post-hypnotic" timeline start in 1992 rather than 1982, but I welcomed the opportunity to show how well my giant xerox paper collage held up against the buff '80s confections. It's a damn shame the show didn't come to NY, but what can you do.