Critical Essays on Abstract Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Exhibitions

Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Painting lives on, but the critical terms stagnate and slacken, the art historian says

by Richard Shiff  |  5 June 2015
Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Eddie Martinez, Time Was (2007). Copyright Eddie Martinez. Courtesy the artist and a private collection
Painting is back in style. At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the exhibition New York Painting (until 30 August) looks at the work of 11 contemporary artists based in the city, including Eddie Martinez and Antek Walczak, who are part of the medium’s “recent return to cultural acclaim,” in the words of the art historian Richard Shiff. Yet critics, who often insist on comprehensiveness, have failed to take into account the raw power of individual pictures, Shiff argues. In the below essay, which is an adapted version of his catalogue entry for the exhibition, Shiff surveys the terrain of criticism and explains why critics have been remiss.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover (1974). Courtesy the artist.

Repetition and cliché infect art criticism. The art historian Thierry de Duve noted an irony in 2003: “About once every five years, the death of painting is announced, invariably followed by the news of its resurrection.”

Like history, criticism is subject to optics—that is, perspective. Critics once opposed photography to painting, as if the two media were representative of antithetical psychologies and social orders. This perspective lies within the penumbra of Walter Benjamin, who associated painting with focused concentration and photography and film with disruptive distraction. But photography, film and video are productive technological aids for painters, as are copiers and computers. Few of us today balk at the juxtaposition of hand-drawing and digital printing. Each can be manipulated to resemble the other—or not. It remains an artist’s choice, refined or sometimes reversed in response to immediate sensation. Critics, with their comprehensive concepts, shield themselves from such experiential disorder.

The problem is optical: two parties, critics and artists, look past each other with incompatible expectations. Art critics often typecast painters as committed “modernists” and, what is worse, “formalists.” But even Clement Greenberg, who has been maligned for his rigid evaluative standards, warned of applying conceptual order to aesthetic judgment. Few listened when he said it: “There’s no theory. No morality.” Feeling comes first. When critics argue that any emotional or intellectual position must always derive from an existing cultural construct, they beg the question, and dismiss the feeling of their own experiences.

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Consider this common, usually unchallenged, notion: photography constitutes “a phenomenon from which painting has been in retreat since the mid-19th century”. This is Douglas Crimp’s phrasing from 1981, put at the service of the argument that painting had died. Yes, photography depersonalizes imagery. But so does much modern painting. To avoid “that hand touch,” as he phrased it, Robert Mangold used sprayers and rollers. Mary Heilmann developed a slapdash technique, “a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work,” as she has said, so that her hand might be anyone’s. David Reed arranged paintings in the manner of film strips, to be animated by an anonymous viewer’s mobility. Jack Whitten combed, raked, or swept his way across paint layers: “The idea was to construct a non-relational painting by extending a single gesture to encompass the entire picture plane,” he once said. “The analogy, symbolically, was to photography.” Thoughts of impersonal, mechanistic photography have motivated many innovative painters. The two media are not at odds unless willfully put there.

A social critique like Crimp’s operates within limited optics. An artist’s need to engage in hand-work raises issues apart from the totemic value of handmade objects as markers of cultural prestige and economic status. The notion that humans have always had the desire to make paintings should not be dismissed as an arbitrary element of modernist mythology, as Crimp’s account insists. Academicised critical formulations—whether they are dialectical, historicist or determinist—have no bearing on the human need for immersion in physical acts of creation.

Ruth Root, Untitled (2014). Photo: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Clichéd metaphors

Corpse, zombie, vampire, ghost, mourning and cannibalization: these are among the clichéd metaphors attached to painting. In his 1984 article Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson assessed the society that had nurtured walking-dead media. His analysis derived from the prevailing theoretical discourse—the writings of Benjamin along with other Europeans, such as Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord—only to re-enter the critical conversation as an authoritative template for North Americans. Those who argued the case for postmodernism in the 1980s, with its strategies of pastiche and appropriation, seemed to act their theory out; they cited Jameson frequently, repeating his array of examples and mimicking his phrasing.

Postmodernism signaled the collapse of the modernist ideology and the dissolution of modernism’s foundations in authenticity, individual subjectivity and emotional expressiveness. Jameson noted “the waning of affect … the imitation of dead styles … the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.” Such strategies and effects served a consumer’s “appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself”—life removed from living, feeding on the corpse of life. Gone was the integral subject, the authentic experience, the expressive self. Gone was easel painting.

Joe Bradley, Maag Areal (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Photo: Thomas Müller

The emerging consensus already troubled Max Kozloff in 1975: “A whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing.” Arthur Danto added a wrinkle in 1993: “It was … ‘handmade’ art that was dead … the easel picture.” Despite painting’s recent return to critical acclaim—or marketplace enthusiasm—metaphors of its demise persist, as if this art, when revived, were still half-dead, an aura lacking a body. As David Geers wrote in 2012: “[We] re-live a myth of a ‘wild,’ unmediated subjectivity welded inextricably to the primal medium of paint … nostalgic and mystified.”

Today, painting lives on while the critical terms pale. In 2014, Laura Hoptman organised an exhibition of recent painting, The Forever Now, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her ingenious title generated unwanted echoes of Thomas Lawson’s vilification of Barbara Rose’s analogous exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, American Painting: The Eighties, staged in 1979: “a corpse made up to look forever young.” At the time, Rose’s artists—among them, Elizabeth Murray, Mark Lancaster and Mark Schlesinger—were condemned wholesale, despite the variety of their methods. They shared only the misadventure of painting. To greet an exhibition like Rose’s or Hoptman’s with bias for or against the medium is to miss all the informative nuances. When critics harp on rising commercial values or restrict their analysis to social critique, they deny life to the medium, so that painting appears vampiric. But such a response derives from critical concepts that are projected onto the art. It ignores the work’s manifest energy.

Ross Iannatti, Hysteresis/Large no. 2 (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

Generating generalities

The politics of art keeps generating generalities. Within American universities, the case against painting has hinged on the belief that Western culture is morally bankrupt; that it is inherently sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist and authoritarian. Because Western nations sponsor museums packed with paintings—many of which are commissioned or owned by oligarchs and dictatorial leaders—the medium can appear complicit with corruption and oppression. Yet such induction is faulty: an artist may be complicit, but painting itself exercises no agency.

In 1974, Rose warned against “the skepticism of any criticism based on distinctions of quality.” As she wrote: “weakening public trust in art may as easily pave the way to fascist counterrevolution, for a mass culture in the service of totalitarian ideals.”  When Crimp quoted from Rose’s essay in 1981, he actively excised that sentence. Her overt fear of “fascist counterrevolution” would have muddled his argument, which required opposing his “cultural” and “historical” interest to her “natural” and “mythical” aestheticism.

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

According to Crimp, Rose failed as a critic because she never challenged “the myths of high art” or “the artist as unique creator.” If these “myths” continued to inform Rose’s optics, we merely witness a conflict of systems of belief. Neither Crimp nor Rose is more ideologically progressive (although Crimp  attacked Rose’s values as regressive, implying that history had a trajectory and had left both her and the medium of painting behind).

To call Rose’s belief a myth, as Crimp did, is either trivial or inherently extreme—extreme if it implies that one’s own belief is not also a myth. All beliefs, which instigate aesthetic strategies, amount to myths; if not, they would be facts or laws of nature. But even laws of nature are subject to irregularity and exceptions to their presumed invariability; they are also therefore mythical. The “death of painting,” as a widely held theory that its adherents fail to question, is another myth. We cannot escape our myths simply by accepting alternative beliefs. To suppress general beliefs and principles altogether would be more effective—a state worth seeking, even if impossible to attain.

Artists devoted to painting believe in it, but they also doubt their belief. Their doubt opens painting, as well as its artists, to living.

Richard Shiff is professor and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

Reviews and Articles on the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy London

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photos from:

https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/anselm-kiefer-remembering-the-future/

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer retrospective - London

Ash Flower at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective (click image to enlarge)

 

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom Hermann's Battle (1980)

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom: Hermann’s Battle, 1980 (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers, 2006

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flower, 2006

Anselm Kiefer Royal Academy of Arts

The Morgenthau Plan, 2012: part of the RA display

 

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (2), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (3), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

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Anselm’s alchemy

By Martin Gayford

Published 22 September 2014

Throughout his career, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has confronted the weight of the past and the power of myth on a monumental scale. As the RA stages a major retrospective, Martin Gayford chronicles the extraordinary vision and transformative force of this colossus of contemporary art.

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  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Walking down a hillside in the foothills of the Cévennes, we come across a group of massive towers. Multi-storeyed, irregular, almost tottering, these look at once old and new. The material they are made from – cast concrete – gives them the appearance of a contemporary shanty town or some haphazard industrial structure. Their form and presence, silhouetted against the clear southern French sky, suggest the architecture of Dante’s Italy or medieval Greece.

    These extraordinary objects – it is hard to know whether to call them sculpture, architecture or installation – are among the landmarks of La Ribaute, the estate near the town of Barjac on which the German artist Anselm Kiefer Hon RA has created perhaps the most ambitious and complex work of art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At La Ribaute’s centre is a disused silk factory, a rambling building in vernacular stone architecture containing a house and workshop. Around this, however, has accreted what can only be described as a Mediterranean landscape strewn with contemporary art spaces. The long, winding drive is lined with some 50 individual pavilions, each containing a group of paintings, sculptures or installations. Other works are housed in a maze of underground tunnels, and in glass structures of Kiefer’s own invention – part greenhouses, part vitrines.

    Just in scale, what Kiefer has done at Barjac is daunting. A day is scarcely sufficient to see everything. Asked how his retrospective at the RA would relate to this gesamtkunstwerk – this total work of art – at Barjac, Kiefer replied, “It will be a concentration of all this.”

  • Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Charles Duprat.

  • When Kathleen Soriano, curator of the RA’s exhibition, first visited Kiefer’s studio, she found the experience overwhelming, but by her third visit she felt more reassured, because she had grasped that all of Kiefer’s works were connected.

    All of Kiefer’s art, she says, is concerned with “a handful of issues, themes, stories that he is constantly revisiting; at the heart of it are ideas about cosmology, the connection between heaven and earth”. Thus everything Kiefer makes is part of a whole that is always in the process of evolving. “He isn’t someone who thinks about time being linear,” as Soriano puts it. “He thinks about it being cyclical and everything being connected.” On the May morning when I saw those towers, Kiefer told me he had woken up with the idea for a new building in his mind, and an intuitive feeling – on which he did not elaborate – about what he would put inside it.

    Change and decay are built into his art, in the way that planned obsolescence was a feature of American cars. His paintings often contain materials that are bound to mutate: straw, lead that once flowed like a sluggish liquid. Some of his recent works were given a final touch by electrolysis – they were placed in a chemical bath with a cathode and an anode so that copper was deposited on its lead, which in turn became part of the surface of the painting. The copper turned green, but – and this was the point that delighted Kiefer – alterations carried on occurring. People who bought these works, he told me with glee, would have to be told that in six months they would have a different picture.

    Two of Kiefer’s towers, entitled Jericho, were exhibited in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in 2007. Around the towers at Barjac is strewn the wreckage of similar mini-Babels that have come tumbling down. I asked his studio manager, Waltraud Forelli, whether Kiefer minded when his works collapsed in this way. “Oh no,” she replied, “Anselm loves it when they do that!” Rubble, indeed, is one of his favoured materials. In a glass gallery space nearby lies a lead battleship, perhaps 12 feet long, having foundered on the waves of a sea of smashed concrete.

  • Detail from Kiefer’s book work ‘For Jean Genet’, 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute.

    Hall Collection. Photo Hall Collection. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Ruins, as a matter of fact, were exactly where Kiefer started. He was born on 8 March 1945, just two months before V.E day. His arrival in the world therefore corresponded with the beginning of the postwar era; and – equally relevant to his development as an artist – he grew up among the debris of saturation bombing. A few years ago, he told me how he had been powerfully affected by that beginning. “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.”

    This is Kiefer’s fundamental beginning, aesthetically and emotionally: his life started after a cataclysm. Unlike a German artist of a slightly older generation, Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who has memories of growing up in the Nazi era, Kiefer knew only the aftermath: a world which had been shattered by high explosives, and a society in which the immediate past was mentioned as little as possible because it held terrible secrets.

    Unearthing that hidden past was one of his first undertakings as an artist. In the ‘Occupations’ series of 1968-69, he was photographed in various places in France, Italy and Switzerland performing the Nazi salute, as seen in his book work For Jean Genet. At the time – and for some people still – it was an outrageous (and illegal) thing to do. When work, including these images, was submitted for his degree at Freiburg School of Fine Arts, some on the jury were appalled. But the point of this extreme gesture was, of course, not to extol Nazism, but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it. Only by doing so, he felt, would it be possible to reclaim the past – to start building again from the ruins. This was no doubt why the young Kiefer was supported by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a leading figure in German art of the 1960s whose works, which took forms including sculpture and painting but centred around performances, often examined ideas of rebirth.

    Beuys was an occasional mentor of Kiefer’s, though not a formal teacher. Kiefer remembers how, as a young artist, he would take work to show to the older man. “I was working in the forest and I would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my VW Beetle and drive to Du?sseldorf to show him.” Of all the major postwar German artists, including Richter, Georg Baselitz Hon RA and Sigmar Polke, it is Beuys to whom Kiefer is closest. A profound interest in ritual and metaphysics is something Kiefer has in common with Beuys, as well as a deep sense of German Romantic heritage, in literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. There is also a stylistic similarity between Beuys’s works on paper and Kiefer’s delicate and intimate watercolours, such as Winter Landscape (1970) – a counterpart to his massive paintings, sculptures and installations.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970.

    © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • The artists also shared a ritualistic feeling for materials. Again and again in his art Beuys used felt and fat, both materials that are connected with a personal myth about his healing after being injured in an air crash during the war. In Kiefer’s case the signature substances, as well as lead and straw, include concrete and sunflowers. In his case, too, there are probably biographical associations. His affinity with concrete, for example, is perhaps the result not only of the pulverised townscapes of postwar Germany but also of a formative stay at the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, outside Lyon, designed by Le Corbusier during the 1950s in starkly moulded concrete. There, Soriano notes, he was affected by “the combination of spirituality and scholarship that he saw in the monks”.

    Kiefer is both spiritual and extremely well read, as well as unexpectedly jolly. A conversation with him might begin with medieval philosophy, and progress, via alchemy, to architecture. In origin, he is a Catholic, from Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, near the border with France and Switzerland (in contrast to Richter and Baselitz, who come from the Protestant north-east, almost another country from southern Germany). You could not, he told me, “imagine anywhere more Catholic” as Donaueschingen. He was an altar boy: “I’ve forgotten a lot of the poems I learned by heart but I still know the mass in Latin.”

    As befits someone who once assisted at the mystery of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine become the body of Christ, Kiefer has a metaphysical approach to materials. No doubt he relishes lead for its physical attributes: its enormous weight and sombre matt-grey surface. But he likes it as much for its metaphorical qualities. As Soriano explains: “Lead is the basest of materials but also it is changeable. If you heat it up, it bubbles, it is constantly in flux. Above all, to Kiefer’s mind, there’s its weight: he considers it the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.”

    Kiefer uses lead paradoxically. He makes it into the kinds of objects you would least employ it for from a practical point of view: aeroplanes too heavy to fly, boats that would immediately sink, books whose pages would require huge effort to turn. At the entrance to the Royal Academy exhibition will stand a new sculpture, incarnating this paradox: lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013).

  • Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013.

    Lead, metal, wood and plaster. 325 x 474 x 150 cm. Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • In alchemy, lead was to be transmuted into gold, and Kiefer is intensely interested in alchemy – he admires the writings of the Jacobean English astrologer, cosmologist, cabbalist and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). His work, especially in the last two decades, has been fed by deep interests in many esoteric traditions, such as the Jewish Cabbala and ancient Egyptian religion. Just as Soriano felt overwhelmed by the volume of art in his studios, one can feel as if one is drowning in references and allusions when one reads about Kiefer’s work. But – this is a crucial point – it is not necessary to decode all those layers of meaning in order to appreciate his art. They are all compressed into a visual experience; you can just look, and sense the complexities.

    Kiefer also has a deep interest in poetry. He has said that when he “looks inside himself he finds poetry”, yet he thinks in images. Indeed, he is haunted by the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-70), whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. Celan’s poem Death Fugue (1948) gives the titles and themes to Kiefer’s paintings Margarethe (1981) and Sulamith (1983). They refer, respectively, to a German guard and a Jewish prisoner in a death camp. Celan wrote of “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”. Each painting has their name inscribed onto the canvas. Kiefer’s works often contain words in this way and, as in these paintings, they affect the meaning of the work. Sulamith depicts the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by the architect Wilhelm Kreis. It was a grim expression of the Nazi cult of the dead transformed by Kiefer into a memorial to the victims of Nazism, as art historian Daniel Arasse put it in his 2001 monograph on the artist.

    If one wanted to find a stylistic description for the earlier phase of Kiefer’s art, in the 1970s and early ’80s, far better than Neo-expressionism – which was tried, but doesn’t fit – would be postcataclysmic romanticism. The principle theme of Kiefer’s work at this time was, Arasse concluded: “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?”

  • Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973.

    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer depicted, for example, a path through a forest merging with a railway line leading to the concentration camps. He painted the forests that had been a place of refuge and also fear for his family during the final stages of the war. He also painted primitive halls of wood, often based on his own studio in the upper storey of an old school house in the town of Buchen. In one, Nothung (1973), the magical sword of the mythical hero Siegfried sprouts from the floorboards. Others in the series were executed in a sinister, shamanistic combination of oil paint and blood. This attic, as Soriano says, was “a theatre, a space in which he could act out history”.

    A number of works took as their settings the starkly severe neoclassical monuments of Nazi architecture. Interior (1981) depicts the mosaic room in the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, and virtually destroyed in 1945. In the foreground, flames flicker. Such paintings have the melancholy grandeur of the masters of 19th century German art and architecture – painter of northern landscapes Caspar David Friedrich, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect of Berlin – but are overlaid with a much darker mood. The vanished Nazi buildings, destroyed in or after the war, reappear like sombre ghosts, witnesses to a terrible history. Such paintings have a spectral, sinister magnificence.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis, 1985-87.

    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Fire, destructive and transformative, was a presence in Kiefer’s work at this time. The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975), one of his many book works, documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.

    The ultimate purpose of Kiefer’s art in the 1970s and ’80s, Arasse argued, was “to perform an act of mourning for the whole of German culture and all of its finest and most ancient works”. But, he continued, the changes that took place in Kiefer’s work during the 1990s “seem to imply that the time of mourning is over”.

    In 1992, Kiefer moved to France and began to work at Barjac. From being an artist preoccupied by German history, he became, in the words of critic Matthew Biro, “a global artist”. He travelled the world and his art took on an international sweep. A series of works, including the earlier Osiris and Isis (1985-87), take as their central subject huge ruined pyramids of sand-coloured brick. These are based on structures he had seen in Egypt, Israel, Central America, southern India and the China of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Studio Anselm Kiefer, Croissy, 2014.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer’s preoccupation with starry skies and sunflowers is both cosmographical and a response to his new environment in the south of France. Barjac, after all, is not far from Arles, where Van Gogh painted both the flowers and the sky at night. When Kiefer depicts wheat fields, however, as he has in his new series of paintings, ‘Morgenthau’, some of which go on show for the first time at the RA, he has in mind not only the cycle of life and death evoked by Van Gogh’s harvests with their yellow corn and black funereal crows. He is also thinking of the Morgenthau Plan, named after the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr, and proposed late in 1944 (around the time when Kiefer was conceived). Morgenthau’s idea was that after the war Germany should not just be demilitarised, but also deindustrialised, transformed into a peaceful bread basket: the European equivalent of the Prairies.

    This quixotic, historical might-have-been both amuses and inspires Kiefer. It also demonstrates that, no matter how far he ranges in time and space, in some way he remains rooted in his beginnings: the end of the Second World War and the start of the new era in which we are still living. A large space at Barjac is also devoted to work based on this scheme. It is an installation: a plantation of grain in the centre of the room, the ears gilded with gold-leaf and – nestling in the middle – a serpent.

  • Anselm Kiefer is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.

    Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.

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BBC ARTS

 

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Tim Marlow gets a guided tour of the German artist’s new retrospective.

The first major British retrospective of the work of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer – widely considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation – opens this weekend.

The exhibition, which runs from 27 September to 14 December 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts, spans more than 40 years from Kiefer’s early career to the present day.

Kiefer at the RA

Born in Donaueschingen in 1945, Kiefer’s work often explores the darker episodes of German history, as he explains in an exclusive forthcoming short film for BBC Arts Online.

He tells Tim Marlow about his Occupations and Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder) series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which record Kiefer’s re-enactment of the Nazi salute in locations across Europe, made in the belief that one must confront rather than suppress the experiences of history.

He also discusses his more recent work, including pieces made especially for the exhibition. You can see more of Kiefer’s work below.

Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970

Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm | Collection Würth | Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981

Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm | Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam | Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – The Orders of the Night (Die Orden der Nacht), 1996

Emulsion, acrylic and shellac on canvas, 356 x 463 cm | Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen | Photo © Seattle Art Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Black Flakes (Schwarze Flocken), 2006

Oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, lead books, branches and plaster on canvas, 330 x 570 cm | Private collection, c/o Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst | Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970

Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm | Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) | Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource/ Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Nothung, 1973

Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm | Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam | Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Palette on a Rope (Palette am Seil), 1977

Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas, 130 x 160 cm | Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich | Photo Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87

Oil and acrylic emulsion with additional three-dimensional media, 381 x 560.07 x 16.51 cm | San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange, the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund | Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe), 1975

Oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm | Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida | Photo Collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer’

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Anselm Kiefer: Inside a black hole

Anselm Kiefer: Nothung, 1973. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Things are always falling off Anselm Kiefer’s work. Straw, sunflower seeds, chunks of concrete, you name it. Curators at the museums to which he sends his work have fastidiously collected the fallen debris and returned it to him, presumably in the expectation that he might want to repair the damage. But Kiefer, whose work is the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts this autumn, just shrugs. He may be one of the great artists of our time; but he is not, it turns out, a preservationist. He’s keener on ruins.

Like many artists, when he is near to finishing a work, Kiefer will often get frustrated or succumb to a sense of dissatisfaction. He has learned to recognise this feeling and to respond, writes Richard Davey, the author of an essay in the show’s catalogue, by reintroducing “chaos”:

“He lets go of the work, deliberately withdrawing… so that his paintings and sculptures can take on a life of their own. He allows nature and chemical reactions to take over the creative process. Paintings in process are burnt, slashed, buried or exposed to the elements. Canvases are laid on the ground to have paint and diluted acid poured on them, while works on lead are placed into electrolytic baths and left to stand and corrode. Many paintings are put inside locked shipping containers, to await their moment of rebirth in the dark; when these voids are reopened later, it is as if Kiefer is seeing these works for the first time.”

At times he has gone even further. He has covered his works in earth, and has even been known to strafe his paintings with bullets. In a corner of his studio in Croissy, on the outskirts of Paris, he has a jet aircraft half-buried in sand.

Provocatively, but perhaps inevitably, book-burning is also in Kiefer’s repertoire: he has produced many weighty books, some from sheets of lead, many with carbonised pages, deliberately calling to mind the Nazi delirium, and Heinrich Heine’s prophecy: “Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings.”

Kiefer was born in a town called Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest region on 8th March 1945. The town, which is just north of the Swiss border, was both a rail hub and the base of a military garrison. It came under intensified Allied bombing in the period prior to Kiefer’s birth, and the situation continued to deteriorate in the following months. “During the daytime when I was a baby,” Kiefer later said, “my grandparents and my mother had to go into the woods to protect us from the bombing.” His parents’ house remained intact. But their landlords, who lived next door, were not so lucky: their dwelling was blown to pieces.

The ruin next door turned into Kiefer’s playground. Before the age of six, when his family moved, he spent long stretches of his boyhood playing in the rubble. He would take loose bricks home to build new, multiple-storey structures, which became more ambitious by the month.

He was doing much the same thing decades later when—already a world-famous artist—he turned his sprawling, 35 hectare studio-estate in the south of France, formerly a silk factory, into a massive, constantly morphing artwork in its own right, replete with ruin-like concrete towers, freestanding staircases and an underground network of crypts and tunnels. But by this time Kiefer’s playfulness—like his absurdist sense of humour, which is a central but often overlooked aspect of his work—had taken on darker overtones.

Kiefer came to notoriety in 1969 with a series of photographs of himself dressed in his father’s army uniform performing the Nazi salute—which had been banned in Germany since the end of the war—in various historically-loaded locations around Europe: the Colosseum in Rome, Paestum, south of Naples, Arles in the south of France.

Kiefer has said that during his school years, mention of the Nazi era was scrupulously avoided. But this omission only fuelled his fascination. When he heard a recording of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, it triggered something deep inside him. “The sound goes right through the skin,” he said. “Not only through the ears and the head. I was simply shocked. And that’s how it began.” For Kiefer, the two series of saluting photographs (called Occupations and Heroic Symbols) were “performances… acts of mourning” and—against the general inclination to forget—of remembering.

Hitler’s ruinous legacy, although far from being Kiefer’s only subject, has found its way into all corners of his work. Even as he draws on ancient history and mythology, 20th-century literature and philosophy, cosmology, physics, and alchemy, his work is always in dialogue with this more recent history.

 

Kiefer uses a vast panoply of materials in his art, each of which have intricate symbolic meanings. Studiously parsed, they trigger a kind of spiritual-historical giddiness. There is the straw, for instance, that symbolises the hair of the German prison guard Margarethe in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” There are the seven flames that represent Margarethe’s antagonist in the same poem, the concentration camp prisoner Shulamith, reduced to ashes in the furnaces. There is the lead Kiefer uses, again and again, to invoke the weight of history and the flux and potential of the human spirit. There are the sunflowers and crows that refer to specific paintings by Van Gogh, and the concrete that connects in his mind with spiritual striving, and with the modernist architect, Le Corbusier. On it goes. Sometimes, the allusions feel pointed, precise, and powerfully charged. At other times, it’s all quite bewildering.

Overwhelmed and confused, perhaps, by his work’s undisguised ambition, critics have occasionally accused Kiefer of getting into an uncomfortably intimate dance with Nazi tropes. When he showed his work, alongside his friend Georg Baselitz, in the West German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1980, one critic, Werner Spies, accused Kiefer of inflicting on the public “an overdose of the Teutonic.”

The accusation would have been offensive if it weren’t also true. An overdose of the Teutonic is exactly what Kiefer foists on us all. But he does so with his eyes wide open, and there is insight, empathy, and great moral energy in his approach. (Werner Spies would go on to become one of the artist’s great champions).

Kiefer’s efforts to get to grips with Nazism emerge most viscerally in two of his overriding obsessions: the aesthetics of the ruin and the motif of the forest. Much of Kiefer’s early work, as Christian Weikop points out in another of the Royal Academy catalogue’s essays, revolved around forests, trees and wood grain. In 1971, Kiefer had a studio in the Oden Forest. He made a painting, Man in Forest, which showed the artist himself in a nightshirt holding a flaming branch in the midst of a dense pine forest. “I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite,” he said, comparing himself to Prometheus. A key Kiefer woodcut from 1978, Ways to Worldly Wisdom: Arminius’s Battle, alludes to the ancient Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which the German soldier Hermann (also known as Arminius) triumphed over three Roman legions. The battle was a nation-defining event, to which Hitler often referred.

Kiefer’s preoccupation with forests chimes uncomfortably with the Nazi valorisation of Germany’s landscape. Again and again, Hitler and his henchmen defined the rooted, forest-dwelling Aryan race against the “homeless, desert-roaming” Jews. In 1935, Heinrich Himmler commissioned research on the role of the forest in German culture and history. And the following year, Hitler presented winners at the Berlin Olympics with sapling oaks, a symbol of Aryan supremacy. (In a strange irony, one of the four oaks presented to the African-American athlete Jesse Owens now towers over the Cleveland high school where he trained.)

“Our stories begin in the forest,” Kiefer has said, echoing this rhetoric. His statement is made bitterly ironic not just by the Nazi associations, but also by his own beginnings: his family’s forced sanctuary in the forest as his nation collapsed around him under an onslaught of Allied fire-bombing.

Rubble also piles up relentlessly in Kiefer’s work. He has always been infatuated with the poetry of the ruin. It’s why he lets his sculptures and paintings degrade. It’s why he abandons them to chaos, subjects them to the elements, and lets them develop a patina in which colours and tones seem to merge into greys and pale yellows, so that they achieve the poetic unity of tint common to ruins and old, once-vivid fabrics.

Hitler, too, cherished the poetry of ruins. He commanded his architects to build in stone because he wanted his buildings to project beauty and power long after the society that built them had expired. Stone made for beautiful ruins. This idea—Ruinenwert, or “ruin value”—was pioneered by his favourite architect, Albert Speer.

What makes Kiefer so dizzying, and at times so profound, is that, although he is forever conscious of Nazi tropes and ideas, he is also involved in an endless attempt to recoup them, to salvage meaning and beauty and something even deeper—something frankly cosmic—from the black hole of Nazism.

Kiefer once described painting as “a ceaseless shuttling back and forth between nothing and something.” Ruins operate in his imagination as an analogue of that incessant movement. The idea of the ruin represents a kind of deeper human dispensation, far from the perverse logic of the Nazis. It is a notion that was beautifully articulated in 1911 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in an essay called simply “The Ruin.”

The ruin, for Simmel, represented a deeper reality than the pristine work of art. If art or architecture represent “the most sublime victory of spirit over nature,” as he wrote, the ruin represents a shift in the balance of power between these two opposing forces—in which nature regains the upper hand. In the ruin, nature transforms the work of art “into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art.”

Simmel was telling us something Kiefer has taken to heart. He believed that the ruin, for all its poetry, was a reminder of the limits of aesthetics (limits Hitler never recognised: he wanted his fascist aesthetics to enter into every field of endeavour, especially military endeavour). When we perceive aesthetically, claimed Simmel, we are effectively demanding that the contrary forces of existence—nature and spirit—be frozen in equilibrium. But such equilibrium is an illusion, because life is always in flux.

In the ruin, we see the bigger picture, not just the false aesthetic moment. And, although it is, in the end, art that Kiefer is making, I believe he aims for a similarly broad perspective in his work. In its embrace of decay, its toying with rubble, his work is a valiant attempt at solving the problem of the “merely” aesthetic—the feeling that, as Theordor Adorno famously put it, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” His work is an attempt at summoning, instead, that deeper reality perceived by Simmel, reclaiming the idea of “ruin value” from the perverted logic of Hitler and Speer.

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MUSEUMS

Epic Done Right: Anselm Kiefer in London

Installation view, 'Anselm Kiefer' at the Royal Academy of Arts (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

LONDON — Anselm Kiefer’s retrospective comes at an odd cultural moment. Pop artist Nicki Minaj recently came out with a music video so steeped in offensive Nazi imagery that the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism, was compelled to make a statement. A Middle Eastern collector beat out multiple interested parties to purchase a painting by Adolf Hitler for an unprecedented $161,000; demand for Hitler’s other works is predicted to increase. And after being briefly banned from the festival for something between a bad joke and an expression of Nazi sympathies, director Lars von Trier is no longer a persona non grata at Cannes Film Festival. Are the images and symbols of Nazism, after decades of embargo, making some sort of cultural comeback? Could they even be … in vogue? The notion is stomach churning.

Anselm Kiefer, "Nothung" (1973), charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (photo by Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) (click to enlarge)

Amid this problematic milieu comes theAnselm Kiefer retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is a case study in epic, from the sheer number, size, and visual depth of the works on display to the breadth and weight of the topics with which this contemporary German painter grapples. We encounter a collection of illustrated books in which delicate cathedrals emerge from between the thighs of women; a horizontal swathe resembling a sandstorm that has been sprinkled with real diamond dust; a rusty bear trap embedded in canvas, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Courbet’s scandalizing “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World). Every carefully selected allusion is multilayered in a jaw-dropping tapestry of alchemy, poetry, history, mythology, theology, and philosophy. But in the thick intellectual web produced by the works on display, it’s Kiefer’s handling of Germany’s cultural memory of the Third Reich that is the most compelling strand.

The appropriation of blatant Nazi imagery is an artistic tactic Kiefer seems to have moved away from as of late. Throughout his career, though, the artist has reenacted the Nazi salute — banned in his native Germany since 1945 — in photographs throughout Europe, recreated the buildings of Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in thick lashes of paint, and suffused his canvases with the cultural language wielded by Nazi propaganda: the forests, the ruins, the Wagnerian heroes. Unlike Minaj, however, Kiefer exercises these taboo images carefully, to wide-ranging effects.

Anselm Kiefer, "Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe)" (1975), oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm, Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida (photo collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer)

Sometimes, as with his salutatory self-portraits, Kiefer plays the role of the provocative conceptual artist, mocking the representational prohibitions that give force to the tight-lipped fantasy of a national tabula rasa. Other times you can feel him genuinely mourning as he grapples with a cultural inheritance of shame, guilt, grief, and layers upon layers of loss: a sentiment so prevalent in postwar Germany that they developed a word for it,Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The exhibition’s most moving works in memoriam are a pair of paintings, “Margarethe” (1981) and “Sulamith” (1983). They reference a haunting poem reprinted on the gallery wall, “Death Fugue,” by concentration camp survivor Paul Celan. Each painting is scrawled with the name of its corresponding character from the poem: the ashen-haired Jewish girl Sulamith and the golden-haired German girl Margarethe. In “Margarethe,” the flaxen straw that stands in for the girl’s hair is matted on the canvas, a failed pastoralism caked with grey, black, and white paint. Depicting Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 design for a funeral hall honoring German soldiers, “Sulamith” scrapes at Third Reich monumentality to reveal what lies beneath: an ash-blackened vault reminiscent of an oven. With a little pyre, menorah-like, where a tomb would be, the vault is a memorial to Sulamith, to all of the Sulamiths.

Kiefer’s work asks the big, impossible, questions: How can Germany remember and represent the Holocaust? What is a German artist to do with the deluge of images and cultural reference points that were appropriated and exploited for such an unforgivable end? Kiefer’s work isn’t riding the wave of fascism’s fetishization (though it likely has and will reap the financial rewards of such a wave). Its earnest intentions are to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust stay fresh in our collective memory; to try to understand how the Nazis leveraged culture for killing; to parse through the artist’s role in the process of memory and memorialization.

Anselm Kiefer, "Ages of the World" (2014), private collection (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

In “Ages of the World,” an installation piece that Kiefer made especially for this retrospective, a mass of stacked canvases pricked with leaden sunflowers creates a pylon-cum-pyre that attempts to capture not only decades of his artistic work but also a geological timeline of the world. The piece is an apt metaphor for the retrospective: the show at times seems to collapse under its own weight as it unapologetically — boldly, bravely, a bit foolishly — aims for the epic. Yes, it’s hubris. But if there’s anyone I trust to do hubris right, with intelligence and care, it’s Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through 14 December.

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TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION LONDON

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: cataclysmic, transformational, stupendous

Alex Danchev on the artist’s extraordinary and formidable work

Anselm Kiefer

Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London
27 September-14 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer
By Kathleen Soriano, Christian Weikop
and Richard Davey
Royal Academy of Arts
240pp, £48.00 and £28.00
ISBN 9781907533792 and 808

An original artist follows the path of the oculist, says Proust. Their art acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. “When it is over, the prac­titioner says to us: ‘Now look.’ And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear…Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a painter or writer with an original view of the world.”

That geological catastrophe has just opened at the Royal Academy in London. It has Anselm Kiefer’s name on it. Like all great artists, his work is his own, an untracked continent as yet unnamed. Contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order. The Kieferworld is rich and strange, boundless and immersive, elemental and metaphysical. This artist traffics in fundamental truths. “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth,” affirms Kiefer. “It never can, but it can get quite close.” At the same time, things are in flux. There is something cataclysmic about the Kieferworld. Heaven and earth take their chances in the rag and bone shop of the heart that is the artist’s studio. ­Kiefer’s studio is at once laboratory and crucible.

Perhaps the most striking quality of the cataclysm at the RA is the material. Kiefer sees artworks as actions, as he says, and not as consummate creations. The Kieferworld is in the process of perpetual transformation. Climate change has come indoors. The artworks slip and slide, corrode and erode. They age, and shed, and flake. They are weathered and distressed, scarred and mutilated. Violence is done to them, with a variety of weapons. Here are the survivors. They may or may not be happy in their skin. The dates of some of these works testify to an epic ­struggle: Ash Flower (1983-97), for example, a characteristic blend of oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas – a canvas of continental proportions (382.3cm x 761.4cm), practically covering one end wall of gallery 3.

Ages of the World by Anselm Kiefer

Ages of the World

An installation made specially for the RA brings home the sense of action and transformation, and the sheer physical presence of these stupendous works. Ages of the World (2014), summarised rather coyly in the catalogue as mixed media, is a kind of recapitulation; it seems to speak of last things. The installation fills a whole gallery. It is described there as part totem, part funeral pyre. One might add part pyramid, part tomb; part sacrifice, part pile of the artist’s signature stuff. Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment.

There is a place for belief in the Kieferworldview, belief in something above and beyond the featherless biped, but not a “salvator” or saviour. The artist’s outlook is perhaps more intellectual than spiritual. Kiefer is nothing if not a thinker-painter. Like Cézanne – another law student turned artist – he is a mighty reader. In an almost biblical sense the book is central to his practice. He makes books of his own (books of lead and books of words); he ransacks the pages of the poets for their wisdom. “I think in images,” he told the assembled company, accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2008. “Poems help me do this. They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.”

He is a formidable intellectual. The lectures he delivered as chair of artistic creation at the Collège de France in 2010-11 are published under the title of Art Will Survive Its Ruins (2011), an apt title and an apt calling. Kiefer’s breadth and depth put common or garden professors to shame. His lectures are compelling, erudite, individual. As a thinker, he is both playful and profound. “Some artists wait all their life for the word of God, and it never comes. This is the case with K, who waits in vain in Kafka’s The Castle; and even more radically with Vladimir and Estragon in [Beckett’s]Waiting for Godot, who merely play at waiting. Like spoken words, a painting may happen to contradict itself. It is by nature an aporia. It feeds on chance, signifies everything but ordains nothing.”

Books and their authors are Kiefer’s interlocutors. He responds to them in his own idiom. This can produce surprising results. Invited recently to respond to The Cathedrals of France (1914), a book by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, Kiefer produced a book of his own with the same title (2013), combining studies of cathedrals with erotic watercolours: another speciality of the celebrated sculptor. One shameless sheet on view at the RA shows a lascivious nude with an erect cathedral in her lap – Rodin meets Magritte!

The Orders of the Night by Anselm Kiefer

The Orders of the Night

At once the most considered and the most sustained engagement is with the poems of Paul Celan (1920-70), entwined with those of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73), his lover, regarded by Kiefer as the greatest poet of
the second half of the 20th century. Celan’s Death Fugue is now canonical; for Kiefer it is a foundational text, as this exhibition triumphantly demonstrates. Bachmann’s Darkness Spoken is perhaps less well known, but no less vital:

The string of silence
taut on the pulse of blood,
I grasped your beating heart.
Your curls were transformed
into the shadow hair of night,
black flakes of darkness
buried your face.

Celan and Bachmann deal in the same darkness, broker the same black flakes. Kiefer pays tribute to the poems and the poets in his meditation on their plight. His exploration – one might better say his excavation – honours theirs: he probes the limits of language and the possibilities of art. “With art,” said Celan, “you go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free.” The Kieferworld is a free world, but a heavily burdened one, full of dead souls. Kiefer’s art is, among other things, an inquest and a reckoning – a reckoning with the history of the terrible 20th century.

Two vast canvases bracket that endeavour. For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night (1998-2013), with a Kiefer-figure lying in the foreground, is framed through a series of arches in gallery 8, as if the image of the artist himself were impregnated in his work. Looking back through the arches, at the other end of the galleries is The Orders of the Night (1996), with another Kiefer-figure lying at the foot of the giant sunflowers that are a recurring motif in his work, redolent of another insistent interlocutor: Vincent Van Gogh, a painter-­philosopher of heart-breaking eloquence.

There is lyric poetry after Auschwitz. The labours of Anselm Kiefer offer proof. Whatever else it may be, the Kieferworld is a challenge – an extraordinary feat of sustained creativity, an oeuvre that beggars belief. The result is monumental, inexhaustible, unmissable. Be brave. Go now. Think on.

==

Anselm Kiefer at the RA

Enter into the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty and history.

Walk into the first room of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition and you are struck by Nazi salutes and bonfires, followed by derelict landscapes and decrepit sunflowers. You have entered the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty, horror and history.

Kiefer was born into ruins, in 1945, towards the end of the second world war and the end of the Nazi regime. His country’s past was hidden from him as a child, yet the taboo topic fascinated Kiefer and lead him to explore Germany’s willfully forgotten past in his work.

In one room an imposing pile of lead books and unfinished Kiefer paintings tower up towards the ceiling. The work crumbles at your feet, just like the art work which burned at the hands of the Nazis. The weight of history is represented by the lead books, stained by the erosion from reacting with the air. There is something intriguing about his choice of metal here. Lead is almost impenetrable, and yet it is also poisonous.

I found it unsettling to look at the crumbling pile of Kiefer paintings even before I came to understand the meaning behind it. Paintings worth millions of pounds crumbled and dismantled all for a metaphor. It seems the world’s richest living artist is not precious about his paintings. I read recently that he reportedly left some of his Royal Academy exhibited paintings out in the rain by accident, later claiming that ‘the rain won’t harm them, it might even make them better’.

With a vast amount of wealth and a 200-acre art studio in the South of France at his disposal, Kiefer’s mental playground has become a reality. As I wander into another room I confront dark and textured surfaces, hanging from the walls, like the surface of an unknown planet or the night sky on a clouded evening. I move closer I notice the paintings begin to twinkle as little stars appear. As I move closer still the alarm begins to scream and it becomes apparent that Kiefer has placed hundreds of little diamonds into the night sky.

My favourite room is a wash of serene blues and magnificent yellows, six different paintings, each on a vast scale, all reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The decrepit sunflowers that feature in so much of Kiefer’s work are also present. Objects reach out from the paintings as you see into the landscape before you and not at it. The scale at times feels a bit overwhelming, but you soon come to appreciate the real beauty captured in these near-ephemeral paintings – they look as if I could break a piece off with the touch of my finger.

Just after the room of blues and yellows is a welcome transition to some works by Keifer that I had never seen before. Subtle and simple nudes, all of which are from sketch books. There are no lead books, or crumbling landscapes, just delicately painted bodies that look soft to the touch.

This exhibition is on until the 14th December at the Royal Academy or Arts.

 

 

Essays on Global Conceptualism

Terry Smith

One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art

Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.

—Willard van Orman Quine1

Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.”2 There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.

As the artists most acutely aware of the powers and the pitfalls of exactly these processes, conceptual artists refused to embrace the term “conceptualism” during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They were, however, happy to use terms such as “conceptual” for their work, because questioning the concept of art was precisely the main point of their practice. As we shall see, they foresaw that the tag “Conceptual Art” would inevitably be associated with their work, and thus tie it too closely to art that had already resolved its problems. Their goal was to keep their art (practice) problematic to themselves by keeping it at a (critical) distance from Art (as an institution). They therefore sought to prevent the precipitous labeling of their art by adopting one or both of two strategies: insist that the term “conceptual” be applied so broadly (describing any art no longer governed by a traditional medium) as to be meaningless, or so narrowly (indicating only language-based art that dealt with Art per se) as to be offensive to almost everyone.

Art and Language, Art and Language Australia, 1975.

It is a nice paradox that the term “conceptualism” came into art world existence after the advent of Conceptual art in major centers such as New York and London—most prominently and programmatically in the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999—mainly in order to highlight the fact that innovative, experimental art practices occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, South America, and elsewhere prior to, at the same time as, and after the European and US initiatives that had come to seem paradigmatic, and to claim that these practices were more socially and politically engaged—and thus more relevant to their present, better models for today’s art, and, in these senses, better art—than the well-known Euro-American exemplars. I explored a variant of this idea—that conceptualism was an outcome of some artists’ increased global mobility—in my selections for the “Global Conceptualism” exhibition, and in my catalogue essay, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand.”3 Retrospection of this kind has also shone spotlights on what were once regarded as minor movements in Euro-American art (Fluxus, for example).

The question posed by the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980,” presented at the University of Toronto Art Galleries in 2010, is whether a similar valuing structure might be applied to certain strands in art made in Canada from the 1960s to the present. Even though Canadian artists were conspicuously absent from “Global Conceptualism,” certain artists have since been valued as contributors to the international tendency. Thus the exhibition asks us to look in more detail at work of the time made throughout the regions of Canada and consider whether perhaps this valuing can be extended to them. There is no suggestion that this art was nationalistic—on the contrary, it was everywhere based on skepticism about official national culture-construction. The implication is that regional conceptualisms existed—that is, that conceptualist developments (in the broadest sense) occurred differently in each of the distinct regions of Canada. Again, the implication is skeptical: in every case it is about regionality in transition, not a self-satisfied parochialism.

Triggered by remarks made by some of the key artists back in the day, I wish to revisit the terms “Conceptual art” and “conceptualism” as indications of what was at stake in the unraveling of late modern art during the 1960s and in art’s embrace of contemporaneity since. I will do so by asking what conceptualism was before, during, and after Conceptual art, and I will show that there were at least one, usually two, and sometimes three conceptions of conceptualism in play at each moment—and that these were in play, differently although connectedly, in various places, at each of these times.


Josef Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea (Meaning), 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood.

Pop or Conceptual? Or both and neither?

Let me begin with the question as seen from within orthodox art historical narratives, as a matter of the meaning of style, a concern of art historians. I start from before Conceptual art was named as a style, before the term “conceptualism” had any currency, to see what might count as Conceptual art in that circumstance.

Ian Burn, in conversation in late 1972, said of Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea works: “If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.” In his 1970 essay “Conceptual Art as Art,” Burn gave these works this latter dating and characterized them as key examples of the “strict form of Conceptual Art” because they were analytic of the nature of art, their (minimal) appearance being of the most minimal relevance.4 Why did an artist with such a critical attitude toward orthodox art history’s puerile dependence on style terms apply such crude criteria to the work of a close colleague?5

Kosuth’s response was outrage at applying such anti-conceptual criteria to such work: he was an art student who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception—immediacy was the new currency.6

Josef Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

In one sense Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is Pop-like in that its statement about what constitutes a sign is all there, all at once, and obvious, as in your face as Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, but without the fascinated irony that informs the British artist’s perspective. To an observer outside the US sphere of cultural influence—or, more accurately, at its waxing and waning borders—One and Three Chairs might seem to offer viewers an open choice as to which item seems the most attractive constituent of “chairness,” thereby reducing spectatorship to supermarketlike art consumption, and artmaking to the provision of competitive goods.7 To the extent that this is true, Conceptual art that turns on overt demonstration or the instantiation of an idea (as does much of the better known and easily illustrated work—think Baldessari, Acconci, or Huebler) shares something with what might be called ordinary language Pop art, that which recycles the visual codes of consumer culture.

But the matter does not end there. In my view, the invitation to look in One and Three Chairs is at least as subtle as it is in key works on this subject by Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol in its conceptual questioning of what it is to see, what an image might be, what an idea looks like. These artists regularly juxtaposed photographs and objects such as actual chairs (in Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, for example), or evoked black-and-white photography and overtly displayed the tools that made them (Johns’s Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, for example). Warhol’s Dance Diagram (“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”), 1963, is an appropriation of an illustration, but it is also a demonstration of what constitutes a visual sign, especially when displayed, as he preferred, on the floor. Indeed, Warhol now seems the most nakedly conceptual of artists (in this pre-Conceptual art moment), precisely in his instinct for setting out one visual idea at a time, in showing an image as an idea, in making artworks that plainly demonstrated how visual ideas achieved appearance in the culture, in the visual culture, in popular imagination, in unArt, in America. The idea-image, for him, was in David Antin’s brilliant perception, a “deteriorated image.”8

There were of course many others striving to picture the many dichotomies afforded by the idea-image interplay that was taking shape at the time: a random list must include Guy Debord, with his films such as Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and his collaborations with Asger Jorn; concrete poets of all kinds; Jim Dine; Kaprow, with his early happenings; Ed Ruscha; and many others, all of whom converge with Pop in certain ways, although they, like the artists mentioned above, were on a track much more interesting than that which can be encompassed by that term. In Canada, Greg Curnoe’s work throughout the 1960s offers a fascinating instance of a figurative painter, alert to the stylistics of Pop and flat color abstraction, yet, like Kurt Schwitters, drawn irresistibly to the potency of words and texts as they occur in the flow and stuff of everyday life. Add to this a Wittgensteinian consciousness that we are all products of our language-worlds, and an interesting outcome is assured. Thus, in Westing House Workers (1962), the names of a group of laborers are stamped out on a sheet that seems taken from a factory cafeteria notice board, while Row of Words on My Mind #1 (1962) stamps out a set of names of people, things, promises, and so forth, that seem as random as anyone’s everyday ruminations. By 1967, however, Curnoe had evidently seen tautology-based conceptualism (either through reproductions or via the agency of Greg Ferguson): Front Center Windows (1967) is a blue vertical rectangle stamped with black letters that describe a façade in the language of a builder’s report, while Non-Figurative Picture (1968) is a vertical column stamped with the letters of the alphabet.

These examples tell us that the question “Is it Pop or Conceptual art?” is at best a provocation (as it was for Burn), and at worst a badly formulated misunderstanding of the deeper stakes of both kinds of work. Rather, we can see that various kinds of conceptualization inspired the most inventive artists of the late modern era, and that the conceptual qualities of their work were among its most important. This is the first, the most rooted, sense in which the three ideas of what it is for art to be conceptual could count as one idea: the term “conceptual” as an adjective is most fitting to this sense. Quite properly, this basic usage precedes any real usage of the terms “conceptualism” and “Conceptual art” in art discourse, as these are derivative from it. It permits us this proposition, the first part of a proposal that I advance—with full awareness of how paradoxical a gesture it is—as “a theory of conceptualism”:

1. At its various beginnings, conceptualism was a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible).9


Dan Graham, March 31, 1966.

A work of art becomes consequential when it counts as art

It is lazy-mindedness to say that all art that evidently reflects on its own medium, that does so in ways unusual enough to raise the question “Is this art?,” qualifies as conceptual. There is a widespread sense, in today’s sloppy art babble, that any art that has resulted from the artist having any kind of idea is “conceptual.” Not so. You have to show that particular works, or groups of works, or a set of protocols, or a practice did these things consciously as opposed to by instinct, intelligently as distinct from intuitively, and did so effectively, with impact, with consequence.

On a number of occasions in conversation, Joseph Kosuth has pooh-poohed as pure pedantry my referencing Henry Flynt’s use of the term “Concept Art” in 1961, despite the fact that it is the first documented usage in an art context.10 “Who was this Flynt? A nobody. Who heard him, who knew of him, who cared what he said? So what if some thirteenth-century Chinese painter threw ink around in ways that look Pollock-like, or that Max Ernst did?” To Kosuth, what counts is not who said what when as a matter of plain record, or what was done in some isolated, adventitious circumstance, but whether the utterance, the work, the proposition counted in the dominant art discourse of the time. This alerts us to the internal struggle, among artists, critics, and theorists—that is, within art discourse itself—as to what was at stake in Conceptual art and conceptualism as practices of art.

Thus Kosuth’s famous statement, in “Art After Philosophy,” that “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually” is not to be taken to mean that all art influenced by Duchampian strategies is conceptual, and that other art is some other kind of art. It means that only Duchampian art is truly art, and that other art is not art precisely because it does not take on the challenge of framing new propositions about art and as art.11

From this perspective, Robert Morris has a much stronger claim to consequence in works such as Card File (1962): these overtly pit the complexity of his actual life and self against the limited information contained in official descriptions of a person. Two Untitled works of 1962 (recently added to MoMA’s collection) are nothing more, but no less, than grey gouache painted over sheets of newspaper to the point of nearly obliterating the images and text. But did Morris go on with this particular line of inquiry? A short answer would be that it became one of the many lines that he has since pursued, but a longer answer is needed to do justice to such a profound oeuvre.12

Robert Morris, Card File, 1962.

In Poland, Roman Opałka began his “infinity” paintings in 1965, sizing them to his studio doorway, beside which he has had himself photographed as each one is completed. On Kawara began traveling the world and sending daily postcards in 1959, then started making a date painting every day in 1966, and two years later embarked on the production of hisOne-Hundred Year Calendar that lists everyone he meets each day. Examples of such total commitment to applying a routine to a life, knowing that the two are fundamentally incompatible, abound. They may be found all over the world during this period, and are constantly being taken up nowadays by young artists (Emese Benczúr, for example). I think that we are getting close to the core of conceptualism worthy of the name, and to the basis of its appeal to serious young artists today: it is something to do with rigor, without cause, and with implacable commitment in the face of meaninglessness. So, in retrospect, it is no surprise that such a spirit should emerge from within the conflicted confusions of the mid- and later 1960s.

Sol LeWitt’s statement, in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” is famous:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.13

This seems clear to the point of being classical (indeed, the last sentence is one of the epigrams to “Art After Philosophy”). But we need to ask: what did LeWitt mean by “the idea or concept”? If one examines closely the nature of these paragraphs, as an artist’s statement—that is, if you put them back into the context of his own practice and see them as first and foremost a statement of the principles governing that practice (not all possible practice, not the practice most desired of all artists from now on)—then it becomes obvious that what LeWitt meant by an idea was a geometrical figure, and what he meant by a concept was a procedure for carrying out the realization of this idea, for example, as a singularity or as a specified sequence.

If, however, you read closely the 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” [copies of the handwritten and corrected versions of 1968 have recently come to light], you are immediately thrown into the paradox just mentioned:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.14

The contrast between rationality and mysticism is weak, and soon disappears. More important is that here we can see awareness of the reach but also the limits of ideas and concepts narrowly defined. It is their potential to create chaos, disorder, and revolution that comes to be valued, thus the peculiar poignancy of the proposals from visiting artists—to be realized by students, and, occasionally, the artists themselves—in David Askevold’s Projects Class at NSCAD from 1969 forward. The postcards of the instructions, shown in the “Traffic” exhibition, are exquisite mementoes of each artist’s unique, distinctive mode of thought. More generally, objectivity was not the point: rather, rationality had to be shown to be crazy by being enacted literally; the Organization Man was nuts, viz. General Idea, Pilot (1977).

Let us return to One and Three Chairs and see whether it meets these deeper criteria—Kosuth’s own—of what counts as conceptual. In the most immediate sense, it looks like a simple demonstration. Signified + signifier = sign. All there, all at once. A rose is a rose is a rose. But there are two signifiers, after all, which open up a space of ambiguity (which may be closed again when we read the work as an illustration of Plato’s three stages of knowledge). The project becomes more interesting when we realize that other chairs could be used under the same title, and other objects—for example, a shovel, à la Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, an authorized replica of which is owned by Kosuth. The point is that One and Three Chairs is not a one-off, singular visual statement: it is an instantiation of a proposition that may be realized using any matching set of elements. Like many other works conceived at the time, it is an exemplification of an act of thought. Kosuth’s “Art as Idea” series seems to be a set of tautological objects: actually, they are visual propositions about themselves as signifying instances, presented as Art (or Art as Idea as Idea)—on the post–Ad Reinhardt grounds that that is all that art, in conscience, at this time, can be.15

A step forward was to take stated propositions as thesaural, which opens out their closure, their two-way tautology, as Kosuth did when he placed thesaural categories in newspapers in his Second Investigation (1968–9). In a parallel way Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting, made in 1967 in London en route to New York, becomes a comment on the limits of painting as a practice. Such questioning could be consequential: it released artists elsewhere in the world to begin an interrogative practice. For example, Robert MacPherson in the 1970s in Brisbane deployed this strategy to appropriate ordinary language use—in his case, roadside signs. So did Greg Curnoe, in his banner paintings of the 1980s.

Propositionality—its apparently categorical force, but also its materiality and its provisionality­­—is what language-based conceptualism recurs to: it is its core, from which it opens out again. First this is understood spatially (sculpture is residual here),  as in Dan Graham’s March 31, 1966, a description that evokes a spatial zooming beyond spatiality. (His Schema for Aspen magazine, and for the first issue of Art-Language, is his masterwork). Then it is understood as a phenomenon of perception (painting is residual here), as in Ian Burn’s No Object Implies the Existence of Any Other (1967). This is, in fact, a thought that is impossible to have in a literal sense: you cannot think the idea of an object not implying another object without thinking about at least two objects, one and an other; in front of an object made to be seen by an other (us), consisting of a statement on a mirror that cannot but show you yourself and other objects. (That is, it demonstrates the rest of Hobbes’s statement, “…that is, if we consider these objects in themselves and never look beyond the ideas that inform them.”) Yoko Ono was closer to Hobbes in her 1961 “proposal”: Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through. Burn’s Xerox Book (1968) is more resolute: it embodies the idea of a tautological process.

Yoko Ono, Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, 1966.

LeWitt’s 35th and last sentence read: “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.” The editorial to the first issue of Art-Language, in which these sentences appeared in 1969, asked itself the question, “What would follow [for the art community of language users] if this editorial itself came up for the count as a work of art?”

It is these innovations that allow us to recognize the second proposition in my theory of conceptualism:

2. That, as well as being a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible), conceptualism was also a further integrated set of practices for interrogating the conditions under which the first interrogation becomes possible and necessary (that is, an inquiry into the maximal conditions for art to be thought).


Martha Wilson, Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971.

Conceptual Art Arrives

Conceptual Art arrives as a paradoxical supplement, and art-institutional instantiation, of the interaction between these two approaches. By 1970 we were well inside an art movement, as evidenced by the number of books, exhibitions, articles, and so forth, with Idea Art, Konzept Kunst, and so on, in their titles. This includes Lucy Lippard’s exhibitions and the Six Years book, as well as exhibitions such as “45°30′N-73°36′W + Inventory,” presented in Montreal in 1971 by Gary Coward with Arthur Bardo and Bill Vazan.

Common consensus now is that the full-glare moment of art-world and public recognition was the 1970 exhibition “Conceptual Art, Conceptual Aspects,” curated by Donald Karshan at the New York Cultural Center (with Kosuth and Burn as “ghost curators”). Note that the double has already appeared: yes, there is core Conceptual art, but there is also art that has some conceptual qualities (“aspects”), that is, there is also conceptualist art.

But there was, by 1971, a big shift under way within the movement itself, leading to the third element of my theory:

3. The conditions—social, languaged, cultural, and political—of practices (1) and (2) were problematized, as was communicative exchange as such (that is, inquiry became an active engagement in the pragmatic conditions that might generate a defeasible sociality).

Put more simply, if Art & Language’s self-critique was at the core of conceptualism at this time (as in the indexing projects such as Index 01, 1972, at documenta 5), other artists were taking up these analytical procedures and applying them to real-life situations. Obviously, this occurred differently in different places, and differently again for artists in transit between them. Well-known examples are Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et. al (1971) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–9). Less known are Martha Wilson’s Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971: these are an extraordinary application of nominative generalities to life situations so as to bring out the absurd gap between the two, and the power structures built into them. For instance, Unknown Piece has this instruction: “A woman is prevented from knowing the identity of her partner (sleeping pill, blindfold, total darkness) with certainty. On the evidence the child’s features give her, she guesses who she slept with.” Determined Piece: “A woman selects a couple for the genetic features she admires (good teeth, curly hair, green eyes, etc.) and raises their baby.” Chauvinistic Piece: “A man is injected with the hormones that produce symptoms of motherhood.” It is as if the 1960s, far from being the moment of free love and so forth, was already organized along the lines of Plato’sRepublic.16


Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art, 1976. Comic book.

Transformations occurred within Art & Language, such that its work joined the third sense I have identified. We realized that our extreme adoption of avant-garde strategies was belated, was infused with a sense that we were being avant-gardists after the death of the form. When Allan Kaprow invited me to lecture at CalArts in 1974, he introduced me as “a living dinosaur, an actual avant-gardist.” Thus we moved to embed our practice in the world, starting with ourselves as actors in the art world.17Blurting in A&L (1973) enables readers to enter a conversation and shape it according to their own preferences; Draft for an Anti-Textbook was a 1974 issue of Art-Language that, among other things, took on provincialism in theory; the exhibitions recorded in Art & Language Australia (1975) did so in practice. The three issues of The Fox (1975–6) constitute the group’s most direct assault on the modernist art world. Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, and I continued this kind of work in Australia when we returned in the mid-1970s, creating an Art & Working Life movement that persists, in a dispersed fashion, to this day.18 Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé’s comic book It’s Still Privileged Art (1976) was based on Maoist practices of constant self-criticism; the Cultural Revolution comes to the New York art world (we saw a lot of these publications in Chinatown).19 I cannot overstress how important critical conceptualism was for the success of work with trade unions and dissident groups in Australia, Toronto, and elsewhere, and how important this particular commitment to consequence remains for subsequent artists of major caliber (such as Jeff Wall and Allan Sekula), as well as for the hundreds of artist collectives that operate all over the world today with this kind of work as part of their inspirational armory.

Conceptualism Already Redux

Now we arrive at the moment after conceptual art, when “conceptualism” appeared as a term in art discourse. Let us examine it from the point of view of the “theory” I have advanced. The key question will be: are we looking at delayed, or belated, or simply particular, peculiar, and other instances of (1) and (2), a local instance of (3), or is this a fourth sense/term/proposition that must be added to the three so far advanced? My answer will be: yes, no, and yes. One and three ideas, non-contemporaneously and contemporaneously, again. I will explore two cases among the many that arose during these years all over the world.

When Boris Groys coined the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” in 1979, he created a verbal artifact that, I believe, attempted to stand at the same kind of critical (ironic yet implicated) distance from international art discourse, and to its own circumstances of production, as he understood the art itself to be. Writing for readers in Russia (knowing that the circulation of his essay there would be clandestine), and for readers in France, who would presumably read it in English, he wanted to draw attention to how deeply embedded this kind of work was in the specific conditions of what it was to make “apartment art” in Moscow, to the awkward, embattled, ironic inwardness of the work (the artists wished to be anywhere but Moscow, but could not be). Similarly, in a society that ignored or repressed them, and was condemned to the skeptical resignation that filled “the Russian soul” like a lead balloon, the artists could only dream of being regarded as paragons of heightened subjectivism like the German and English Romantics. But dream they did—and why not; dreams are cheap. Finally, their art stood at a deliberate distance from the concerns and character of US and European Conceptual art as we have discussed it. Thus, by “Conceptualism” Groys meant that this art was like such art in its self-reflective character, but in reverse, precisely in its deliberate effort to be intuitive, allusive, affective—that is, nonconceptual. In other words, each term within Groys’s label had its opposite built into it—thus its acuity, as an art critical artifact.

In the 1979 issue of A-YA, the English translation of Groys’s essay had some oddities. It offers two definitions, the first of which states that “The word ‘conceptualism’ may be understood in the narrower sense as designating a specific artistic movement clearly limited to place, time and origin.”20 The revised translation in History Becomes Form adds the phrase “and limited to a specific number of practitioners” to this sentence.21 The reference here is to US and European Conceptual art. The second definition is this:

Or, it may be interpreted more broadly, by referring to any attempt to withdraw from considering art works as material objects intended for contemplation and aesthetic evaluation. Instead, it could encourage solicitation and formation of the conditions that determine the viewer’s perception of the work of art, the process of its inception by the artist, its relation to factors in the environment, and its temporal status.22

The recent translation changes the last two ideas to “its positioning in a certain context, and its historical status.” This ties the description more closely to the Moscow group, and to art concerned with art, but it remains rather general.

“Romantic” got dropped from the term in the years after 1989, when this art (as distinct from the modernist, informal, protest art) began to be read as a prefiguration of the collapse of the Soviet system, and as the basis for all subsequent art in Russia of any seriousness. Groys’s pragmatism enables us to see other artists carrying on the spirit of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists, albeit in equally unorthodox ways. His key exemplars are Andrei Monastyrsky and the Collective Actions group, which dedicated itself to actions that heightened the specificity of everyday life while remaining, at the same time, scarcely distinguishable from it. The Medical Hermeneutics group made “work” from speculation about whether such actions were art or life.

To me, the real parallels in work such as Ilya Kabakov’s Answers of the Experimental Group(1971)—the originary moment of “Moscow Conceptualism,” according to Matthew Jesse Jackson—are with the interrogatory nature of the late 1950s / early 1960s work of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, which I have suggested is conceptual in the broad sense of the term.23 More precisely, it accords with my first proposition above, that conceptualism was, at its various beginnings, a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world, and the minimal situations in which art might be possible. Moscow Conceptualism is not consonant with my second proposition, exemplified by the Adornoesque negative criticality of Kosuth et al., yet it is in quite specific ways an instance of the third. The fact that it was produced after the institutionalization of Conceptual art means that one element in its makeup was a refusal of such art, a sense that adopting its modes would be irrelevant to local concerns and to local audiences. I do not see any artist working in the Soviet sphere as producing classical Conceptual art—indeed, there is no reason to expect that any one would wish to do so. On the other hand, groups such as Collective Actions and Medical Hermeneutics and a number of individual artists were, in the 1970s and 1980s, making art in a context where they were aware of conceptual art before and during Conceptual art, and were contemporaries with conceptualist art after it, so they made their choices accordingly. Again, the work emerges out of the concerns expressed in my third proposition. If parallels have to be found, it is closest to Fluxus in Europe.

In his otherwise excellent survey, Jackson never questions the term “Moscow Conceptualism.” There are, however, extensive discussions of it, along with a range of other terms that were in use at the time and that have been developed since, in the new book edited by Alla Rosenfeld, Moscow Conceptualism in Context.24 The most detailed account is “The Banner Without a Slogan: Definitions and Sources of Moscow Conceptualism” by Marek Bartelik, who concludes a useful survey by warning us against the danger of those who would manage the politics of memory:

It is crucial, therefore, to assure that the history of the movement not be reduced to a few textbook names of artists at the expense of others who for some reason or another fell out of the picture. In other words, our history of Moscow Conceptualism should be inclusive rather than exclusive of as many artists as possible. After all, it was Moscow Conceptualism’s ethereal, dispersed, and fragmentary nature—as opposed to the official, solid, and permanent nature of Socialist Realism and its correlates—that helped its development and survival for more than twenty years, and that constitutes its unique value for today’s audiences in both Russia and the West.25

This is well meant, but it does not tackle the point about consequence. A similar politics of hope drove the curatorial project that has been most influential in defining the term “conceptualism” in art discourse in recent decades. In their foreword to Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss distinguish two periods, “two relatively distinct waves of activity”: the late 1950s to around 1973, during which time worldwide political changes led artists to call into question the underlying ideas of art and its institutional systems, and the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, when artists mostly outside Euro-America abandoned formalist or traditional art practices for conceptualist art.26 As they write:

It is important to delineate a clear distinction between conceptual art as a term used to denote an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of minimalism, and conceptualism, which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art upon physical form and its visual appreciation. Conceptualism was a broader attitudinal expression that summarized a wide array of works and practices which, in radically reducing the role of the art object, reimagined the possibilities of art vis-à-vis the social, political and economic realities within which it was being made. Its informality and affinity for collectivity made conceptualism attractive to those artists who yearned for a more direct engagement with the public during those intense, transformative periods. For them, the de-emphasis—or the dematerialization—of the object allowed the artistic energies to move from the object to the conduct of art.27


Luis Camnitzer, Uruguayan Torture Series, 1983–4.

The implication is that Euro-American style Conceptual art—even as it came to dominate understandings of what counted as conceptual art—amounted to little more than an essentially formalist critique of minimalism. It was an internal art world style change, whereas conceptualist tendencies elsewhere were always broader, more social and political, and became more so as time went on, eventually eclipsing Euro-American tendencies. Works by Camnitzer, such as his Uruguayan Torture Series (1983–4), give some substance to this view.28 While in general I support this openness, especially as we come closer to the present, we must also be watchful that it does not lapse into a kind of reverse reductivism, one that downplays the internal complexities of Euro-American conceptualism and fails to see its progressive transformations, as suggested by my propositions.

The “Global Conceptualism” curators did espouse a critical geopolitics, noting that the changes within conceptualism occurred most significantly on local levels: “the reading of ‘globalism’ that informs this project is a highly differentiated one, in which localities are linked in crucial ways but not subsumed into a homogenized set of circumstances and responses to them. We mean to denote a multicentered map with various points of origin in which local events are crucial determinants.”29 A number of interesting alternative terms appear in the essays, including “Non-object art,” applied to Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés by Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar in 1959, and “Post-Object Art,” used by aesthetician and sculptor Donald Brook in Sydney in 1968–9. Curators from all over the world were invited to mount mini-exhibitions of art that would meet this understanding of conceptualism. Margarita Tupitsyn argued that in Russia two tendencies—Kabakovian “stylelessness” and Sots Art (Soviet kitsch into high art)—combined to generate a word-image interplay that was uniquely inflected by its peculiarly Soviet context.30

In some of these situations, it may be that “conceptualism” works as a substitute for what I believe the artists involved were—and remain—primarily concerned about: as Reiko Tomii demonstrates in the case of Japan, they sought recognition of their contemporaneity with the Euro-American artists, and even of their precedence in some cases.31 Given that Conceptual art was the most radical, avant-garde, innovative, and consequential-seeming art of the time and has retained much of that aura since, they wanted to expand its definition to include themselves. On the most obvious level of simple fairness, they want to be seen to have been contemporary. This, I suggest, is actually more important to many of those involved than whether or not their art was, or may now be seen to be, conceptual.

From the perspective of the broad historical account that I am developing in my work at the moment, I see these artists as wishing to be acknowledged as equally important innovators within the worldwide shift from late modern to contemporary art.32 In this sense, they are right to seek such acknowledgment. However, like all claims for consequence, it comes with responsibilities.

Contemporaneity

Mel Ramsden described Conceptual art as “like Modernism’s nervous breakdown.”33 A more parochial way of putting it was “Clement Greenberg’s nightmare” (although that had already happened, when Frank Stella showed his black paintings in 1959, and MoMA exhibited them soon after). Michael Fried’s nightmare, then. From my perspective, these intense disputations are all indicative of the moment in which late modern art became contemporary, that is, it was obliged to change fundamentally as part of the general transformation of modernity into our current condition, in which the contemporaneity of difference, not our declining modernity or passé postmodernity, is definitive of experience.

Clearly, there is a spirit of openhandedness in post-conceptual art uses of the term “Conceptualism.” We can now endow it with a capital letter because it has grown in scale from its initial designation of an avant-garde grouping, or various groups in various places, and has evolved in two further phases. It became something like a movement, on par with and evolving at the same time as Minimalism. Thus the sense it has in a book such as Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art.34 Beyond that, it has in recent years spread to become a tendency, a resonance within art practice that is nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of terms such as “postconceptual” as a prefix to painting such as that of Gerhard Richter and photography such as that of Andreas Gursky. And the appeal for inclusiveness cited earlier, as well as the nearly universal use of “conceptual” for any art based on any kind of idea (as distinct from it issuing from instinct, taste, or the materials).


Joseph Kosuth, Clock (One and Five), 1965. Clock, photograph and printed texts.

But inclusiveness, however desirable, does not mean that everyone was, and is, making the same kind of art, nor that they did so, or are doing so now, with the same degree of consequence. If we want to address critically the contemporary ubiquity of the idea that “After Conceptual art, all art is conceptual” (of course echoing Kosuth on Duchamp in 1969, but in a bland, generalizing fashion), we could do worse than contrast a piece by Kosuth,One and Five (Clock) (1965) (in the Tate collection, London), with a celebrated work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90). We can see in retrospect that Kosuth is searching for his “Art as Idea” format; he had not quite settled on the absolute tautology that drives it in the classic three-part presentations with which we are familiar. Instead, he lines up a photograph, an object, and a set of definitions that display the conceptual architecture of clock-time, arraying it across its pictorial, mechanical, and linguistic aspects. One thing after another, Judd-like, in a row, minimally. Five ways of shaping time are displayed. The printed definition of “time” is front and center, and is flanked on one side by an actual clock ticking time along and away, and by a photograph that will forever freeze the time shown on the clock it recorded but which will, being printed on paper, itself fade. On the other side are printed definitions of “mechanization” and of “object,” concepts that elaborate the contexts of both the clock and the camera. The idea world of clock-time is being probed, its relevant concepts being assembled almost spatially. This is conceptualism just before it becomes Conceptual art, the quest before the rigor sets in.

If, in regard to Pop art and Euro-American conceptualism, we are, as Boris Groys has remarked, looking at art that presumes a society built on freedom of choice (however apparent, spectacularized, and ultimately consumerist it may be), for the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists the very idea of having a choice was but a dream (yet impossibility is precisely what occasions dreams). This, too, but very differently, is the point of “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). The only “choice” for lovers in a time of AIDS was about the manner in which they died—including whether they died together, as comrades of a dying time.

Consequence counts differently at different times, in different places. This, above all, is what we need to keep in mind when we puzzle over what was at stake in art when it was made, and what we need to look for in art that is being made now.

×

These remarks combine elements from three recent lectures. The first was delivered on November 27, 2010, at the conference organized by Barbara Fischer, director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, in association with the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada,” shown at the University of Toronto Galleries during the preceding months. The second, dedicated to the memory of Charles Harrison, was delivered at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, on March 8, 2011, as part of a series on Global Conceptualism organized by Sarah Wilson and Boris Groys. The third was presented on April 14, 2011, as part of a conference titled “Revisiting Conceptual Art: The Russian Case in an International Context,” convened by Boris Groys and organized by the Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. I would like to thank all those concerned.

© 2011 e-flux and the author

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Boris Groys

Introduction—Global Conceptualism Revisited

By way of an introduction to this issue of e-flux journal, I would like to discuss the changes in our understanding and perception of art engendered by conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing not on the history of conceptual art or individual works, but rather on the ways in which the legacy of these practices remains relevant for us today.

I would argue that from today’s perspective, the biggest change that conceptualism brought about is this: after conceptualism we can no longer see art primarily as the production and exhibition of individual things—even readymades. However, this does not mean that conceptual or post-conceptual art became somehow “immaterial.” Conceptual artists shifted the emphasis of artmaking away from static, individual objects toward the presentation of new relationships in space and time. These relationships could be purely spatial, but also logical and political. They could be relationships among things, texts, and photo-documents, but could also involve performances, happenings, films, and videos—all of which were shown inside the same installation space. In other words, conceptual art can be characterized as installation art—as a shift from the exhibition space presenting individual, disconnected objects to a holistic exhibition space in which the relations between objects are the basis of the artwork.

One can say that objects and events are organized by an installation space like individual words and verbs are organized by a sentence. We all know the substantial role that the  “linguistic turn” played in the emergence and development of conceptual art. Among other currents, the influence of Wittgenstein and French Structuralism on conceptual art practice was decisive. This influence of philosophy and later of so-called theory on conceptual art cannot be reduced to the substitution of textual material for visual content—nor to the legitimations of particular artworks by theoretical discourses. Rather that the installation space itself was reconceived by conceptual artists as a sentence conveying a certain meaning—in ways analogous to the use of sentences in language. Following a certain period of the dominance of a formalist understanding of art, with the appearance of conceptual art, artistic practice became meaningful and communicative again. Art began to make theoretical statements again, to communicate empirical experiences, to formulate ethical and political attitudes and to tell stories. Thus, rather than art beginning to use language, it began to be used as language—with a communicative and even educative purpose.

But this new orientation toward meaning and communication does not mean that art became somehow immaterial, that its materiality lost its relevance, or that its medium dissolved into message. The contrary is the case. Every art is material—and can be only material. The possibility of using concepts, projects, ideas and political messages in art was opened by the philosophers of the “linguistic turn” precisely because they asserted the material character of thinking itself. Thinking was understood by these philosophers as the operation and manipulation of language. And language was understood by them as thoroughly material—a combination of sounds and visual signs. Now the real, epoch-making achievement of conceptual art becomes clear: it demonstrated the equivalence, or at least a parallelism, between language and image, between the order of words and the order of things, the grammar of language and the grammar of visual space.


Jean-François de Troy, Lecture dans un salon, ca. 1728.

Of course, art was always communicative: it communicated images of the external world, the attitudes and emotions of artists, the specific cultural dispositions of its time, its own materiality and mediality and so forth. However, the communicative function of art was traditionally subjugated to its aesthetic function. Past art was judged primarily according to the criteria of beauty, sensual pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction—or calculated displeasure and aesthetic shock. Conceptual art established its practices beyond the dichotomy of aesthetics and anti-aesthetics—beyond sensual pleasure and sensual shock. This does not mean that conceptual art ignored the notion of form and concentrated itself exclusively upon content and meaning. But a reflection on form does not necessarily mean the subjugation let alone the obliteration of the content. We can speak about the elegant formulation of an idea—but by doing so we mean precisely that this formulation helps the idea to find an adequate and persuasive linguistic or visual presentation. On the contrary, a formulation that is so brilliant that it obliterates the idea is experienced by us not as beautiful but as clumsy. That is why conceptual art prefers clear, sober, minimalist forms—such forms better serve the communication of ideas. Conceptual art is interested in the problem of form not from the traditional perspective of aesthetics but from the perspective of poetics and rhetoric.

It makes sense to reflect for a moment upon this shift from aesthetics to poetics and rhetoric. The aesthetic attitude is basically that of the spectator. Aesthetics as a philosophical tradition and a university discipline relates to art and reflects upon art from the perspective of the art spectator—or one could also say from the perspective of the art consumer. Spectators mostly expect an aesthetic experience from art. Since the time of Kant, we know that this experience can be one of beauty or of the sublime. It can be an experience of sensual pleasure. But it can also be an anti-aesthetic experience of displeasure, or of frustration provoked by an artwork that lacks all the qualities which an affirmative aesthetics expects it to possess. It can be the experience of a utopian vision that could lead away from present conditions to a new society in which beauty reigns. Or, to formulate this differently, it could be a redistribution of the sensible, one that refigures the spectator’s terms of vision by showing certain things and giving access to certain voices that were previously concealed or obscured. But, because the commercialization of art already undermines any possible utopian perspective, it can also be a demonstration of the impossibility of positive aesthetic experience within a society based on oppression and exploitation. As we know, these seemingly contradictory aesthetic experiences can be equally enjoyable. However, to experience aesthetic enjoyment of any kind, a spectator has to be aesthetically educated. This education necessarily reflects the social and cultural milieus into which the spectator was born and in which he or she lives. In other words, an aesthetic attitude presupposes the subordination of art production to art consumption—and likewise, the subordination of artistic theory and practice to a sociological perspective.


Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, Bauhaus Building Block Set, circa 1923.

Indeed, from the aesthetic point of view, the artist is a supplier of aesthetic experiences, including those produced with the goal to frustrate or modify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibility. The subject of the aesthetic attitude is the master—the artist is the servant. Of course, the servant can and does manipulate the master, as Hegel convincingly demonstrated in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but nevertheless, the servant remains the servant. This situation did not change much when the artist became a servant to the public at large, instead of being a servant under the patronage regimes of the Church or traditional autocratic powers. In previous periods, the artist was obliged to present “contents,” for example subjects, motives, narratives and so forth, that were dictated by religious faith or the interests of political power. Today, the artist is required to treat topics of public interest. Just as the Church and autocratic powers of yesteryear wanted their beliefs and interests to be represented by the artist, so today’s democratic public wants to find in art representations of the issues, topics, political controversies and social aspirations by which it is moved in everyday life. The politicization of art is often seen as an antidote to the purely aesthetic attitude that allegedly requires art to be merely beautiful. But in fact, the politicization of art can be easily combined with its aesthetic function—as far as both are seen from the perspective of the spectator, of the consumer. Clement Greenberg remarked long ago that an artist is best able to demonstrate his or her mastery and taste when the content of the artwork is prescribed by an external authority. Being liberated from the question “What should I do?” the artist can concentrate on the purely formal side of art—on the question “How should I do it?” This means: “How should I do it in such a way that certain contents become attractive and appealing (or maybe non-attractive, repulsive) to the aesthetic sensibilities of the public?” If the politicization of art is interpreted as “making certain political attitudes attractive (or maybe unattractive) for the public”—as is usually the case—then the politicization of art becomes completely subjected to aesthetic attitude. At the end, the goal becomes the packaging of certain political contents in an aesthetically attractive form. But aesthetic form loses its relevance in any act of real political engagement—and is discarded in the name of direct political practice. Then art functions as a political advertisement that becomes superfluous once it has achieved its goal.

In fact, this is only one of many examples that demonstrate why an aesthetic attitude becomes problematic if applied to the arts. Actually the aesthetic attitude does not need art—and functions much better without it. It is an old truism that all the wonders of art pale in comparison with the wonders of nature. In terms of aesthetic experience, no work of art can bear comparison with an even average sunset. And of course, the sublime aspects of nature and politics can only be fully experienced by witnessing a natural catastrophe, revolution or war—not by reading a novel or looking at a picture. This was the opinion shared by Kant and the Romantics who launched modern aesthetic discourse. The real world, they claimed, is the legitimate object of an aesthetic attitude (as well as of scientific and ethical attitudes)—not art. According to Kant, an artwork can become a legitimate object of aesthetic contemplation only as a work of genius, e.g. only as a manifestation of natural force operating unconsciously in and through man. Fine art can serve only as a preliminary means of education in taste and aesthetic judgment. After this education is completed, art, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, can be thrown away—to confront the subject with the aesthetic experience of life itself. Seen from an aesthetic perspective, art reveals itself as something that can and should be overcome. All things can be seen from an aesthetic perspective; all things can serve as sources of aesthetic experience and become objects of aesthetic judgment. From the perspective of aesthetics, art has no privileged position. Rather, art is something that posits itself between the subject of the aesthetic attitude and the world. However, the mature subject does not need any aesthetic tutelage via art—being able to rely on personal sensibility and taste. Aesthetic discourse, if used to legitimize art, de factoundermines it.

How, then, should one explain the fact that the discourse of aesthetics acquired such a dominant position during the period of modernity? The main reason for this is a statistical one. Artists were a social minority during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the founding period of aesthetic discourse—and spectators were in the majority. The question of why one might make art seemed irrelevant—artists made art to earn their living. This seemed an adequate explanation for the existence of the arts. The problem was why other people should look at art. The answer was: to form their taste and develop their aesthetic sensibility. Art was a school for the gaze and other senses. The social division between artists and spectators seemed to be firmly established: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude—artworks produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century, this simple dichotomy began to collapse.

The picture phone.

Today, contemporary networks of communication like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos and texts juxtaposed in ways that cannot be distinguished from those of many post-conceptualist artworks. The visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space. Through the internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice. Walter Benjamin famously remarked that the masses easily accepted montage in film—even if they had difficulties accepting collage in Cubist paintings. The new medium of film made artistic devices acceptable that remained problematic in the old medium of painting. The same can be said for conceptual art: even people having difficulties accepting conceptual and post-conceptual installation art, have no difficulties in using the internet.

But is it legitimate to characterize self-presentation on the internet, involving hundreds of millions of people all around the world, as an artistic practice?


Cyberia, Britain’s first internet cafe. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer.

Conceptual art can be also characterized as an art that repeatedly asked the question “what is art?” Art and Language, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and many others that we tend to situate today inside the frame of an expanded conceptualism asked and answered this question in very different ways. One can also ask this question from an aesthetic perspective. What now would we be ready to identify as art, and under which conditions; what kinds of objects do we recognize as artworks and what kinds of spaces are recognized by us as art spaces? But we could abandon this passive, contemplative attitude and ask a different question: what does it mean to become actively involved in art? Or in other words, what does it mean to become an artist?

Speaking in Hegelian terms, the traditional aesthetic attitude remains situated on the level of consciousness—on the level of our ability to see and appreciate the world aesthetically. But this attitude does not reach the level of self-consciousness. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel points out that self-consciousness does not emerge as an effect of passive self-observation. We become aware of our own existence, our own subjectivity, when we are endangered by another subjectivity—through struggle, in conflict, in the situation of existential risk taking that could lead to death. Now, analogously, we can speak of an “aesthetic self-consciousness” that emerges, not when we look at a world populated by others, but when we begin to reflect upon our own exposure to the gaze of others. Artistic, poetic, rhetorical practice is none other than self-presentation to the gaze of the other, presupposing danger, conflict and risk of failure.

The feeling of almost permanent exposure to the gaze of the other is a very modern one, famously described by Michel Foucault as an effect of being under the panoptical observation of an external power. Throughout the twentieth century, an ever growing number of humans became objects of surveillance to a degree that was unthinkable at any earlier period of history. And practices of omnipresent, panoptical surveillance are increasing in our time at an even greater pace—the internet becoming the central medium of this surveillance. At the same time, the emergence and rapid development of global networks of visual media are creating a new global agora for self-presentation, political discussions and actions.

Political discussions in the ancient Greek agora presupposed the immediate living presence and visibility of its participants. Today everyone has to establish their own image, their own visible persona in the context of global visual media. We’re not just talking about the game “Second Life:” now everyone has to create a virtual avatar, an artificial double to begin to communicate and to act. The “First Life” of contemporary media function in the same way. Everyone who wants to go public, to begin to act in today’s international political agora has to create an individualized public persona. This requirement is relevant not only for the political and cultural elites. Today, more people are getting involved in active image production than in passive image contemplation.

This  autopoietic practice can be easily be interpreted as a kind of commercial image making, brand development or trend-setting. There is no doubt that any public persona is also a commodity—and every gesture of going public serves the interests of numerous profiteers and potential shareholders. Following this line of argument, it’s easy to perceive any autopoietic gesture as a gesture of self-commodification—and, accordingly, to start a critique of autopoietic practice as a cover operation that is designed to conceal the social ambitions and economic interests of its protagonist. However the emergence of an aesthetic self-consciousness and autopoietic self-presentation is originally a reaction—a necessarily polemical and political reaction against the image that others, society, power have always already made of us. Every public persona is created primarily within a political battle and for this battle—for attack and protection, as sword and shield at the same time. Obviously, artists were always already professionals of self-exposure. But today the general population is also becoming more and more aesthetically self-conscious and getting more and more involved in this autopoietic practice.


General Idea, Light On, 1972.

Our contemporaneity is often characterized by the vague notion of an “aestheticization of life.” The commonplace usage of this notion is problematic in many ways. It suggests an attitude of aesthetic passivivity  toward our society of the spectacle. But who is the subject of this attitude? Who is the spectator of the society of spectacle? It is not an artist—because the artist practices polemical self-presentation. It is not the masses because they are also involved—consciously or unconsciously—in autopoietic practices and have no time for pure contemplation. Such a subject could be only God—or a theoretician who took a divine position of pure contemplation after God was proclaimed dead. The notion of aesthetic self-consciousness and poetic, artistic practice must now be be secularized, purified of any theological overtones. Every act of aestheticization has its author. We always can and should ask the question: who aestheticizes—and to what purpose? The aesthetic field is not a space of peaceful contemplation—but a battlefield on which gazes clash and fight. The notion of the “aestheticization of life” suggests the subjugation of life under a certain form. But as I’ve already suggested, conceptual art taught us to see form as a poetic instrument of communication rather than an object of contemplation.


Ilya Kabakov, Noma, 1993. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

So what is constituted and communicated in and through the artwork? It is not any objective, impersonal knowledge as constituted and communicated by science. In art  subjectivity comes to self-awareness through self-exposure and communicates itself. That is why the figure of the artist manifests the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way. Indeed, the transition from the divine gaze to surveillance by secular powers has produced a set of contradictory desires and aspirations within the heart of modern subjects. Modern societies are haunted by visions of total control and exposure—anti-utopian visions of an Orwellian type. Accordingly, modern subjects try to protect their bodies from total exposure and defend their privacy against the danger of this totalitarian surveillance. Subjects operating in socio-political space struggle permanently for their right of privacy—the right to keep their bodies hidden. On the other hand, even the most panoptical and total exposure to secular power is still less total than the exposure to the divine gaze. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra the proclamation of the “death of God” is followed by a long lamentation about the loss of this spectator of our souls. If modern exposure seems excessive,  it also seems insufficient. Of course, our culture makes great efforts to compensate for the loss of the divine spectator. But this compensation remains only partial. Every system of surveillance is too selective, it overlooks most of the things that it is supposed to see. Beyond that, the images that accumulate in such a system are mostly not really seen, analyzed or interpreted. The bureaucratic forms that register our identities are too primitive to produce interesting subjectivities. Accordingly, we remain only partially subjectified.

This condition of partial subjectivation engenders within us two contradictory aspirations: we are interested in retaining privacy, the reduction of surveillance, and the right to obscurity for our bodies and desires, but at the same time we aspire to a radicalized exposure that transgresses the limits of social control. I would argue that it is this radicalized subjectivation through acute self-exposure that is practiced by contemporary art. In this way exposure and subjectivation cease to be means of social control. Instead, self-exposure presupposes some degree of sovereignty over one’s own process of subjectivation. The arts of modernity have shown us different techniques of self-exposure, ones that exceed the usual practices of surveillance. They contain more self-discipline than  is socially necessary (Malevich, Mondrian, American minimalism); more confessions of the hidden, ugly, or the obscure than are sought by the public. But contemporary art confronts us with even more numerous and nuanced strategies of self-subjectivation, which of internal necessity situate the artist in a contemporary political field. These strategies include not only different forms of political engagement but also all the possible manifestations of private hesitation, uncertainty and even despair that usually remain hidden beneath the public personae of standard political protagonists. A belief in the social role of the artist is combined here with a deep skepticism concerning the effectiveness of that role. This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from personal vicissitudes has become an important element of contemporary art practice. Here again the private becomes public—without any external pressure and/or enhanced surveillance.

Among other things, this means that art should not be theorized in sociological terms. Reference to the naturally given, hidden, invisible subjectivity of the artist should not be substituted by reference to his or her socially constructed identity—even if artistic practice is understood as the deconstruction of this identity. The subjectivity and identity of the artist do not precede artistic practice: they are the results and the products of this practice. Of course, self-subjectivation is a not a fully autonomous process. Rather, it depends on many factors, one of them being the expectations of the public. The public also knows that the social exposure of human bodies can be only partial, and therefore unreliable and untrustworthy. That is why the public expects the artist to produce radicalized visibility and self-exposure. Thus, the artistic strategy of self-exposure never begins at a zero point. The artist has to take into consideration from the outset his or her already existing exposure to the public. However, the same human body can be submitted to very different processes of socially determined subjectivation, depending on the particular cultural contexts in which this body may become visualized. Every contemporary cultural migrant—and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers—has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and though different cultural, ethnic and political contexts.


Dmitri Prigov in his installation Russian Snow, 1990. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

But if so many people all around the world are involved in autopoietic activities why should we still speak about art as a specific practice? As I’ve already said, the emergence of the internet as the dominant medium of self-presentation seems to lead us to the conclusion that we don’t need any more institutional art spaces to produce art. And over the last two decades, institutional and private art spaces have been subject to a massive critique. This critique is completely legitimate. But one should not forget that the internet is also a space controlled primarily by corporate interests—not a celebrated space of anonymous and individual freedom as was often claimed in its early days. The standard internet user is, as a rule, concentrated on the computer screen and overlooks the corporate hardware of the internet—all those monitors, terminals and cables that inscribe it into contemporary industrial civilization. That is why the internet has conjured for some the dreamlike notions of immaterial work and the general intellect within a post-Fordist condition. But these are software notions. The reality of the internet is its hardware.

A traditional installation space offers a particularly appropriate arena to show the connectivity to hardware that is regularly overlooked during standard internet use.

As a computer user, one is immersed in solitary communication with the medium; one falls into a state of self-oblivion, potentially unaware of one’s own body. The purpose served by an installation that offers visitors an opportunity to make public use of computers and the internet now becomes apparent. One no longer concentrates upon a solitary screen but wanders from one screen to the next, from one computer installation to another. The itinerary performed by the viewer within the exhibition space undermines the traditional isolation of the internet user. At the same time, an exhibition utilizing the web and other digital media renders visible the material, physical side of these media—their hardware, the stuff from which they are made. All of the machinery that enters the visitor’s field of vision thus destroys the illusion that everything of any importance in the digital realm only takes place onscreen. More importantly, however, other visitors will stray into the viewer’s visual field. In this way the visitor becomes aware that he or she is also being observed by the others.

Thus one can say that neither the internet, nor institutional art spaces can be seen as privileged spaces of autopoietic self-presentation. But at the same time these spaces—among many others—can be used by an artist for his and her goals. Indeed, contemporary artists increasingly want to operate not so much inside specific art milieus and spaces but rather on the global political and social stage—proclaiming and pursuing certain political and social goals. At the same time they remain artists. What does this problematic title mean, within the extended, globalized, social-political context? One can perceive the title “artist” as a stigma that makes any political claim suspicious and any political activity inefficient—because inescapably co-opted by the art system. However, failures, uncertainties and frustrations are not the sole privilege of artists. Professional politicians and activists experience them to the same, if not to a greater degree. The only difference is this: professional politicians and activists conceal their frustrations and uncertainties behind their public personae. And accordingly, the failed political action remains final and unredeemed within political reality itself. But a failed political action can be a good work of art because it reveals the subjectivities operating behind this action even better than its possible success. By assuming the title “artist,” the subject of this action signals from the beginning that he or she aims at self-exposure rather than the self-concealment that is usual and even necessary in professional politics. Such self-exposure is bad politics but good art—herein lies the ultimate difference between artistic and non-artistic types of practice.

 

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FRIEZE MAGAZINE

Issue 48 September-October 1999 RSS

Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s

QUEENS MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, USA

‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ included work by well over 100 artists and artists’ collectives, many of them not widely familiar but deserving of interest. They were grouped regionally and by period: 1950s to circa 1973 included Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand; c. 1973 until the late 80s, the Soviet Union, Africa, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The breadth of material was intended to be seen in critical relation to the more conve-ntional account of Conceptual art as a North American and Western European export of the 60s. The exhibition might be seen as something of a riposte to Los Angeles MOCA’s ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965-1975’, a more cohesive but less challenging Conceptual art show.

The inclusiveness of ‘Global Conceptualism’ rested in part on a distinction emphasised by the project directors, Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the highly informative catalogue: a distinction between Conceptual art as ‘an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of Minimalism’ (though this may come as a surprise to some of its practitioners) and Conceptualism, ‘which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art on physical form and its visual apperception’ and was characterised by the de-emphasis of the object in favour of the ‘idea’ (a largely unexamined term in the discourse on Conceptual/ist art) and the conduct of art. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, which tends to separate good (political) from bad (formal) Conceptual artists.

The desire to valourise conceptualism as woven into moments of political and social upheaval yields plausible results, especially in Latin American contexts: Brazilian artist Cildo Mereiles stamped questions about political assassination onto money in circulation in her piece Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (Who Killed Herzog?) (1973) and the most radical example, the Argentinian mass-media art/guerrilla collective action, Tucam·n Arde (1968). But what are we to make of the relations between art, politics and history in the Hungarian Miklos ErdÈly’s metaphysical puzzle, a vacuum flask containing Snow of Last Year (1970)? (Let alone, say, the work of Joseph Kosuth.) If, as the exhibition demonstrates, many politically active artists have taken approaches that look a lot like Conceptual strategies – de-materialisation, engagement with institutional contexts, emphasis on relations between language and perception – those artists have also, clearly, been concerned with the form of their acts. (We might consider, for example, the Australian artist Ian Burn, an integral participant in North American/Western European Conceptual art and a committed leftist.)

The show opened with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. This seemed auspicious, particularly in terms of centre/periphery arguments: Ono is a transcultural figure, and the first gallery, with works from Japan on one side and from Western Europe on the other, was the most successful illustration of one of the exhibition’s premises: a globalism which acknowledges global links, but which insists on the difference between conceptualist movements ‘spurred by urgent local conditions and histories’. There were a number of striking relationships, though not necessarily structured by relations to political events, but by relations to everyday experiences of Capitalism. Documentation of Akasegawa Genpei’s Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1965-7), in which Akasegawa was tried and convicted of currency fraud for making one-sided copies (‘models’) of bank notes, sat opposite Yves Klein’s Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort (1962), in which the artist (who studied Judo in Tokyo in the 50s) ‘sold’ a zone in exchange for a quantity of gold supplied by the collector, which the artist then threw into the Seine.

Works which were confined to regionally-organised galleries made connections and parallels between ideas less clear. Upstairs – particularly, where Africa, the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were located and where the focus shifted to work made in the 70s and 80s – multicentered globalism seemed to fall prey to a kind of uneven development argument, as though Conceptualism were the inevitable corollary to political and social oppression or upheaval. Here, unfortunately, no matter how interesting – and in many instances valid – the attempt had been, conceptualism became too baggy, temporally distended and leaky a category to make productive sense of the relations between works made not only under different, local conditions, but long after the global emergence of Conceptual/ist strategies. By the end, Conceptualism didn’t seem like a strong enough context in which to consider, for instance, the astringent irony of Komar and Melamid’s abstraction of the bureaucratic means of Soviet surveillance in the form of a red square (Documents: Ideal Document, 1975) or the reflection on meaning and freedom that underlies the Chinese artist Wenda Gu’s series of works using ‘pseudo characters’, fake Chinese characters (begun in 1985). But if ‘Global Conceptualism’ overreached itself, it was nonetheless compelling.

Frazer Ward

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Ethnographic Conceptualism: An Introduction

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov is the issue’s guest editor. He is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Address for correspondence: Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RF, UK. ns267@cam.ac.uk.

Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art. This article introduces this concept and contextualizes it in art and anthropology by focusing on the following questions: What is gained by anthropology by explicitly bringing conceptualism into it? And, the other way around, what is gained by conceptualism when it is qualified as “ethnographic”? What is “ethnographic” about this kind of conceptualism? What is “conceptualist” about this kind of ethnography?

In two essays of the mid-1970s, leading conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth identified his method as “anthropologized art.” This is a kind of art that, like anthropology, makes “social reality conceivable.” It comes out of artists’ deep immersion in cultures that are subjects of their reflection. Its aim is a “‘depiction’ of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure.” And, above all, anthropologized art is a “socially mediating activity.” It “‘depicts’ while it alters society” (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124, emphasis in the original; [1974] 1991).[1]

Figure 1
Figure 1. Telephone set in the form of the globe with receiver as a hammer and sickle. A gift to I. V. Stalin for his seventieth birthday from the workers of the aircraft workshop No. 1, Lodz, Polish Republic, 1949. Metal, enamel, plastic and wood; courtesy of State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia.

Ethnographic conceptualism invokes these formulations of “artist as anthropologist.” But its goal is to make this link with art wholly symmetrical. Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art.

I thought of the term “ethnographic conceptualism” when Olga Sosnina and I curated the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Dary vozhdiam) (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006). This was an exhibition of public gifts that Soviet leaders received from Soviet citizens and international leaders and movements. It was about a gift economy that was comparable in global scale and size to the one that the British monarchs, US presidents, or the Vatican has attracted but which was articulated through a distinct idiom of devotion to communist ideas, the inner working of Soviet leaders’ “personality cult,” and Cold War diplomacy (e.g., Figure 1). But as the exhibition of these gifts became an instant hit, it also revealed a political and cultural anxiety over post-Soviet identity as well as the ways in which museum projects articulate it. The term ethnographic conceptualism became for me a way to situate this project in anthropology and art and also between this exhibition as an end as well as a means: a presentation of research results on Soviet history but also a means of doing this research, a post-Soviet artifact and a tool in ethnography of post-Soviet Moscow.

A key example that conveys the concept of ethnographic conceptualism is a comment in this exhibition’s visitors’ book: “Thank you for the exhibition—we found the visitors’ book of comments particularly interesting and educating.” The book became a site of heated polemic about Soviet history. But this comment highlights a paradox of this polemic itself becoming an exhibition artifact on par with the exhibited gifts to Soviet leaders. It collapsed the distinction between commentary and the objects of commentary, between the visitors and the exhibits—and, for me, between an ethnographic notebook and a conceptualist means to produce an ethnographic situation.

But this comment also dramatizes the relationship between this exhibition project and its audience that extends beyond the exhibition site. It is visible, for instance, in the decision of the Kremlin Museum to gift the exhibition catalog to President Vladimir Putin for his fifty-fifth birthday in 2007. This unexpected reaction to the exhibition came from a peculiar kind of audience that included its host, the Kremlin Museum, and the host of this host, the Kremlin. This act interlinked the gift relations that this project charted and the gift relations in which it was immersed—including complex power relations that formed both the subject matter and the context of this study. It drew attention to the performative links between museums, academia, social memory, and politics—to how the Soviet past was debated in the early 2000s and how it was used politically and aesthetically. As a study in ethnographic conceptualism, Gifts to Soviet Leaders both performs and describes post-Soviet society from the vantage point of gift/knowledge relations (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). Ethnographic conceptualism is in this case an ethnographic research and a conceptualist depiction of this exhibition’s operational infrastructure—an “exhibition experiment” in the double sense of curatorial innovation and a laboratory that creates new knowledge (Macdonald and Basu 2007).

Anthropological Theory as Art

In the spirit of the title of this journal, this special issue is a Laboratorium manifesto of ethnographic conceptualism. The goal of this introduction is to situate it in conceptual art and anthropology as well as to situate individual contributions to this issue.

Conceptual art experiments with the reduction of art objects to concepts—with the so-called dematerialization of art—and with the reduction of artwork to the question of what is the concept of art in a given work and among a given audience. A work of art, from this point of view, equals questioning what art is, a depiction of how whatever is taken as art is framed and situated. It makes art out of its audiences and their reactions. In a narrow historical sense, it refers to a movement that took place roughly between 1966 and 1972. But its critical mood captures much of the twentieth-century artistic landscape, from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to relational or situational aesthetics. Thus, an historical reading that traces conceptualism to Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) or some earlier formulations, such as that of “Concept-Art” by Henry Flynt in 1961 (cf. Buchloh 1990:107), can be contrasted with a broader philosophical perspective in which this chronology is not as important (Alberro and Stimson 1999; Beke et al. 1999; Goldie and Schellekens 2007). The replication of concept of art within art is also linked with an even longer durée in modern thinking and aesthetics, in particular, with the baroque technique of “theater within theater,” in which artwork contains a miniature replica of itself or its author, as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas (cf. Corsín Jiménez 2013).

But conceptual art is a declaration of the end of art as a distinct activity. Does ethnographic conceptualism similarly mean the end of the distinct activity of ethnography? How is it then related to a familiar narrative of the end of ethnography, as was implied by its literary turn and the postmodernism of the 1980s? Ethnographic conceptualism (EC thereafter) means not an end of ethnography as a method but its reconfiguration. It is an ethnography that does things—and not just by saying them, to use J. L. Austin’s (1962a) formulation of the performativity of language. It explicitly manufactures the social reality that it studies and in doing so goes well beyond a mere acknowledgement that we modify what we depict by the very means of this depiction.

EC uses art to generate ethnographic situations. But it is very far from a claim that ethnography is “in fact” art in that it works through “poetics” and persuasion, through aesthetics rather than analytics. What is meant by art in such claims looks too much like the “Western art” of textbook anthropology, that is, art as a distinct practice that has an affect because it is aesthetically compelling—about things that are “simply beautiful” (cf. Jarillo de la Torre, this issue). This kind of art is no longer there in Western art itself. The link with conceptual art that ethnographic conceptualism proposes is precisely to highlight the extent to which contemporary art is itself analytics rather than aesthetics.

But EC’s link with conceptual art is also useful for reformulating the theoretical debates from the 1980s onward from a new angle. The 1980s is an arbitrary date. It is not so much a ground zero for critical and reflexive anthropology, which it is not, but this is roughly when the anthropological critique of scientism begins. I agree with Kosuth’s acknowledgement that at the time of his thinking about “the artist as anthropologist” anthropology was quite different from the cultural critique that was at the heart of conceptual art. With the exception of the Marxist anthropological tradition and its notion of praxis, he admitted, anthropology had no interest in altering society by means of depicting it. It was “outside the culture” that it sought to describe and therefore akin to what he called the “modernism” and “scientism” of art criticism and art history (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124). However, what follows below is not a story of how anthropology “finally” caught up with Kosuth of 1974 and 1975. Nor it is a review of projects between anthropology and art, which has been abundantly done elsewhere (Enwezor et al. 2012; Marcus and Myers 1995; Foster 1995; Marcus 2010; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010). What I am interested in is what links with art are made within anthropological theory and what in these links can be further illuminated by parallels withconceptual art.

First, I read anthropology’s turn to artistic and literary tools in the 1980s as “not ‘Ethnography’ in itself but a means of creating it”—to paraphrase a conceptualist artwork title “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it.”[2] In other words, I approach the “writing culture” school as an intriguing attempt at substituting anthropology with a depiction of anthropology’s “operational infrastructure” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:121). There is an interesting question as to whether this depiction is indeed a departure form objectivism, as it was claimed at that time (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). But, second, what I would like to stress in this section is not whether this departure is from “science” to “art,” but what analogy with art was made in the depiction of anthropology as science.

Consider George Marcus and Fred Myers’s remark that the anthropology of the 1980s evinced a “critical ambivalence” of the desire for objectivity, which required distance as evidence that the subjects of study were “independently constituted,” and an awareness of the opposite: of existing relationships of power and histories of encounter, “which make anthropology itself already a part of such subjects of study” (Marcus and Myers 1995:2). It is this ambivalence that parallels developments in art. Anthropology’s objectivism, predicated on the autonomy of the observed cultural phenomena from the culture of the observer, shares Kantian foundations with the notion of the autonomy of aesthetics related to art’s “occupation of a separate cultural domain” (6, emphasis in the original) during modern European history. But the other side of anthropology’s objectivism is its holism, which implies that no dimension of cultural life can be considered in isolation. Thus anthropology is both enabled by and critiques these foundational distinctions, as does contemporary art. Anthropology’s critical reflection on its own objectivism can be viewed as an “ethnographic avant-garde” (20).

This analogy with avant-garde highlights that instead of “whole” cultures of extreme difference, anthropology deals with fragments of and crisscrossing lines, borders and cultural flows. But in suggesting a link with conceptual art, my goal is to illuminate not only what this anthropology looks at but how.

Anthropology’s reflexive turn has been associated with strategies of writing and the notion of culture as text. This was in contrast with the anthropology of the earlier part of the twentieth century that privileged vision—the camera-like presence of an ethnographic observer (Clifford 1983:118; 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The critique of vision is central to conceptualism too. As LeWitt put it, “[c]onceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions” (1967:84). It aims at a substitution of seeing with thinking and a material object with a concept. It “dematerializes art” to the point that material artwork becomes “wholly obsolete” (Lippard and Chandler 1968:46).[3] But textualization is the flip side of this dematerialization. Conceptual artwork often includes the commentary—such as in Keith Arnatt’s “I’m a Real Artist” (1972) that includes famous discussion of the ambiguity of the notion of the “real” from J. L. Austin’s (1962b) Sense and Sensibilia. I submit that the textualization of anthropology, the expansion of prefacing as commentary that sets the stage for ethnography, parallels conceptual art.

Now consider an example of this “linguistic turn”: Olga Sosnina’s exhibition The Dictionary of the Caucasus (Sosnina, this issue). This exhibition, held at the Tsaritsyno Museum (Moscow, 2012), arranges material objects, photography, and art from and about the Caucasus neither regionally nor historically but by “keywords.” Sosnina’s experiment alludes to the conceptualist function such as the The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić but also to Stéphane Mallarme’s Livre, an idea of the novel with interchangeable pages that can be read in any order (see discussion of open artwork below). Among her entries are the ones on the Caucasian War, the “bandit” (abrek), the “elder,” and the “feast”—but also on “archaeologist,” “ethnographer,” and “tourist” as a composite section for the outside scholar/visitor. If her point is that material objects are vehicles of translation and Orientalist imaginary of this region, this section focuses on the figure of the collector, interpreter, producer as well as consumer of this imaginary.

A “linguistic turn” in this kind of art refers not merely to the central role of language as a conceptualist tool or simply words appearing on the exhibited objects. If commentary was traditionally the domain of art criticism, conceptualism “annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary” (Kosuth 1991:38). Art making became art criticism (Goldie and Schellekens 2007:xi), and, furthermore, the commentary could easily and deliberately substitute the artwork that is the subject of commentary. If thinking itself approaches art as a form, then, as Terry Atkinson asks in his famous inaugural editorial of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art (1969), “Can this editorial … [as] an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is … count as a work of conceptual art?” (quoted in Alberro and Stimpson 1999:xix).

These relations of substitution between the artwork and commentary become a subject of conceptualist art practice (see Carroll, this issue). Conceptualism treats the wall as a book page (Rorimer 1999); journal issues become forms of conceptual art—and not just in Eastern Europe where nonconformist exhibitions were impossible (Degot’ 2004); the term “artwriting” is coined (Carrier 1987). But “A Media Art (Manifesto)” by Eduardo Costa, Raul Escari, and Roberto Jacoby ([1966] 1999) goes further. It is an account of how these artists created “the written and photographic report of a happening that has not occurred” that included “the names of the participants, an indication of the time and location in which it took place and a description of the spectacle that is supposed to have happened” (Costa, Escari, and Jacoby [1966] 1999:2–3). Ilya Kabakov incorporates the history of art, as something that explains and situates a given artistic project, into the work of art. He created the work of three fictional artists to illustrate the historical stages of Soviet art in the transition from avant-garde to socialist realism and from the latter to conceptualism.[4]

But this raises a question of the status of this very piece of writing in relationship to conceptual art. This is, on the one hand, an academic argument about conceptual art and ethnographic conceptualism in a social science journal. But, on the other, if conceptualism substitutes objects with concepts, if an editorial that outlines an artistic view as to what conceptual art was could itself be seen as a work of conceptual art, and if conceptual art annexes the role of its critic and historian, can this textualization be extended to a theoretical argument? I suggest pushing the dematerialization of art (Lippard and Chandler 1968) to the point of including anthropological theory. Art as theory rather than theory as art.[5]

The Gaze at the Gaze

But if the gaze can be associated with an anthropology as “science” that reflects, and textuality with an interpretive hermeneutics of anthropology as “art” that manufactures, it is worth keeping in mind that, both in anthropology and art, textuality did not so much eliminate the gaze as redirect it. In conceptual art, the “linguistic turn” constituted new kinds of material objects (texts) that are open to view. They were often meant to achieve their performative effect when a momentary glance was cast at them. In this condensation of reading and viewing in conceptual art, there was a corresponding condensation of a work of art and the definition of art. But even the most nominalist statements of anthropology’s reflexive turn (cf. Rabinow 1996) stop short of declaring “I’m a real anthropologist.” The “writing culture” perspective invites us to view commentary on anthropology. It resituates the knowable social world from the reality under this scholar’s gaze to the relationships between this reality and the scholar. It is the ethnography of ethnographic framing and ethnography as the history of the ethnographic gaze (Asad 1991; Clifford 1983, 1988; Fabian 1983; Stocking 1968, 1993).

The artistic analogy to this second gaze—what I would call conceptualist realism—is the depiction of the viewer. Julia Secher’s 1988 project Security by Julia placed surveillance apparatus in exhibition venues, with the aim to depict the human flow of visitors, its regulation and self-regulation, and to view the impulse of the public to be seen and to see its own visibility. Hans Haacke’s Gallery Visitor’s Profile (1969–1973) accumulates and displays information about the statistical breakdown of museum visitors according to age, gender, religious belief, ethnicity, class, occupation, and so on. Privileged social groups constitute the art audience and frame the discourse of art. This project acts as a mirror that returns this frame to the viewer. But in this mirror reflection the frame becomes realistic in its depiction of this ideology of art and its audience.

But this realism itself could be performative. One of the methods of Michał Murawski’s (this issue) exploration of the meanings of Warsaw’s Stalinist skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science that still dominates Warsaw’s cityscape, is distributing a questionnaire and assembling a statistical breakdown and collective portrait of his respondents. But this is not simply a social science study of the attitudes of his audience but a performative deployment of the image of research and researcher. Indeed, a mirror that reflects an audience implies a corresponding reflection of this figure of the artist. For the purposes of this study, he designs “The Department of Issuing Anecdotes of the Palaceological Department of the Dramatic Theater” and at some point comes out to an audience of his interlocutors dressed as this office’s bureaucrat.

My second contribution to this special issue is also an exercise in conceptualist realism—the second gaze on the gaze and the depiction of its audience. I root it in anthropology’s “new empiricism” which is not an unreflected objectivism, but is the one that is mediated by the performativity theory—a description of how knowledge is situated and what are its performative affects in such fields as studies of science, gender, and economics. But I use ethnographic conceptualism to push performativity theory further and to consider how performative is the very distinction of the performative and the descriptive. “The performative” in this sense does not refer to one of the poles of the distinction between the performative and the descriptive but to the drawing of this distinction itself (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue).

The Anthropology of the Contemporary and Open Artwork

Gustav Metzger’s First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art in 1960 included a transparent garbage bag filled with newspapers and cardboard. When this installation was recreated at the Tate Britain in 2004, a cleaner accidentally binned it. The gallery subsequently retrieved the damaged bag, and the new one made by Metzger was covered over at night for the remaining time of the exhibition. In this section, I consider some of the artistic and anthropological uses of the unexpected.

This accident should have been invented if it had not actually happened. An unanticipated destruction, almost accomplished, illustrates the point of this kind of artwork perhaps as well as the artwork itself. This point is to highlight, first, temporality as art but also, second, something that is the opposite of literal destruction: a creative process that Helio Oiticica called “anti-art” in the sense of the artist being not the sole author of the work but “an instigator of creation—‘creation’ as such.” This process, he argued, “completes itself through the dynamic participation of the ‘spectator,’ now considered as ‘participator.’” The artist “activates” the creative activity which exists in society, albeit latently—it is as such a “social manifestation, incorporating an ethical (as well as political) position” (Oiticica [1966] 1999:9, emphases in the original).

James Oliver and Marnie Badham put it in their contribution (this issue, 157), “there is no object but the practice; the practice is the object(ive).” Their case in point is an art project/participatory ethnography aimed at development of a sense of home that they conducted among inhabitants of an underprivileged, stigmatized, and highly divided area of Melbourne. Their artwork is an ethnography—an “articulation of actually existing, or ‘lived (social) space,’ where people go to work or school and are potentially deskilled, made sick, deprived of benefits, are not permitted to withdraw their laboring bodies or not to participate” (Oliver and Badham, this issue, 156). But it is about making difference in this space. This articulation of space links ethnographic conceptualism with the “situationalism”[6] of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre, aimed at disruption of “the bourgeois life” by staging street events to jolt passersby from their “normal” ways of thinking. The movement’s key concept was dérive, a disruption of the expected.

But Internationale Situationniste is no avant-garde “International” that in the early twentieth century called for a total revolution in society and artistic signification. This and other art after the 1960s seeks difference but is suspicious of a radically different outside. It protests against inequality, elitism, consumerism. According to Kosuth, conceptualism was “art of the Vietnam war era” (quoted in Alberro and Stimson 1999:345); Metzger’s “auto-destructive art” was part of his antinuclear politics. But like Jacque Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s “tactics,” or the Gramscian “war of attrition” (hegemony), in this art “Social Utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies,” writes the theorist of relational aesthetics Bourriaud (2002:13). He calls plainly “futile” any more radically critical stance as based on the impossible, if not “regressive,” illusion of artists’ marginality (13).

A disruption of the expected was also one of the key points of the “reflexive turn” in anthropology. Opening up to view conventions of ethnographic description sets in motion the reality that is being described—by showing how it is contested, negotiated, and subject to change. Opening up aesthetics or the society under study inserts a break and is an important point of intervention. But in the “writing culture” perspective, radical difference is part of the modern macronarratives of progress that this school critiques. The anthropology of the contemporary posits “a type of remediation” as its goal, not “reform or revolution” (Rabinow 2008:3). Both stress the open-endedness of the processes under investigation; neither are radical calls for alterity.

The anthropology of the contemporary is built not merely on the explicit contrast with anthropology as a window to the past but also on the analogy with “contemporary art”. It replaces modernism (cf. Foster 2009; Smith 2009) in addition to being about what is “here and now” as opposed to “far-away” and “timeless” (Marcus 2003). “The contemporary” is open-ended, incomplete, and ultimately unknown. The emerging is a different state of being than what has emerged, however recently, and can be compared precisely with the old. The emergent may include novelty or may not, may hold a degree of repetition, and its contingency does not necessarily equal difference: the “problem for an anthropology of the contemporary is to inquire into what is taking place without deducing it beforehand” (Rabinow 2008:3).

This directly parallels the notion of the audience’s reaction in conceptual art, which works best when unexpected. But the status of repetition here is interesting. One of Rabinow’s most vivid examples of “the contemporary” as a method is the series of performances of Richard Wagner’s Rings, conducted in 1976–1980 in Bayreuth by Pierre Boulez. He sums this up with a quote from Foucault’s review of these performances:

Boulez took seriously the Wagnerian idea of [operatic] drama in which music and text do not repeat each other, [that is, which] are not saying each in its own way the same thing; but rather one in which the orchestra, the song and the play of the actor, the tempos of the music, the movement of the scene, the decors must be composed as partial elements so as to constitute, during the time of the performance, a unique form, a singular event. (in Rabinow 2011:201)

This unique form and singular event to some extent repeats the musical score or dramatic plot, but this repetition entails difference. It is a reworking of the original script by the means of performance. Rabinow calls this “remediation,” a creative transfer between different media that constitutes the key methodological device of the anthropology of the contemporary (2008:3). Boulez’s performance illustrates the notion of remediation for Rabinow. He uses this to remediate art for anthropological purposes. Boulez’s performance is “a contemporary solution” for Wagner (Rabinow 2011:201, emphasis in the original) which works as “a contemporary solution” for the anthropology of the contemporary—“the accompaniment of time” at a time when “no single sensibility—modernist or otherwise—dominates, overarches, or underlies current affairs” (Rabinow 2008:78; Rabinow et al. 2008).

I would like now to compare this with the uncertainty principle in physics. In this comparison, however, my point is not to root this conceptualization in the authority of science but, on the contrary, to extend the theoretical connection with art. Umberto Eco makes this link with physics in his discussion of “open work” ([1962] 1989), an artistic movement in which Boulez was one of the key practitioners and which goes back to Mallarme’s Livre that can be read in any order. Open work is not so much a “composition as a field of possibilities.” For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstiick XI presents the performer with a single sheet of music paper with a series of note groupings. The performer is to choose where to start and in which order to play. The performer is not merely free to interpret the composer—this happens, Eco says, in any performance of any music—but to decide on the sequence of the piece. The “instrumentalist’s freedom is a function of the ‘narrative’ structure of the piece.” These “mobile compositions” or “open artworks” generate “theoretical aesthetics” that are shared across cultural production but also make developments in art, from Eco’s point of view, akin to the general breakdown in the concept of causation in contemporary physics, with its principles of uncertainty and complementarity ([1962] 1989:13). The transition from compositional aesthetics to open artwork is akin for him to the move from Newton’s mechanics to particle physics. It is a move in scale from physical bodies to particles but also from mechanical determinism to indeterminacy and multiplicity of causations.

Via Boulez, let me link Rabinow’s remediation and Eco’s open work with the way artistic performance can be approached ethnographically. Sergio Jarillo de la Torre (this issue) explores two examples of contemporary art. One is the photography of Thomas Struth, who snaps how visitors of the Prado, the Hermitage, or the Louvre contemplate iconic artworks. These viewers and their unposed body language create relational possibilities between the artwork and the art world in the age of mass tourism—from appreciation and curiosity to boredom and fatigue, from art as fetish to a box to be ticked. This exemplifies an ethnographic archive of such performances of meanings of art. But second, Christoph Büchel’s installation Simply Botiful, in a large warehouse in East London, is an environment which is not marked explicitly as art. It is for the audience to explore and make—make into art or possibly not into art.

The uncertainty principle pervades these projects, much as Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s art and ethnography is an exercise in “performing viewers.” She created artwork out of public commentary on the former Yugoslavian monuments, “subtracted the physical monument from the acts of public writing on them” (Carroll, this issue, 101), made this into installation for the 52nd Venice Biennale and Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana in 2007, and presents here an ethnography of this commentary—an autoethnography of her project and a contextualization of socialist and nationalist monumental politics in the Balkans. Yet her study also warns of a flip side to the uncertainty principle that Eco celebrated. If observation influences what is observed and performance is not merely a repetition, the opposite is always a possibility too. Influencing and performing may entail repetition of more that we intend. With regard to Yugoslavian politics, Carroll sums this up with the saying “fight the dragon long, the dragon you become.” But there are also dragons in the shadows of Stalinism and empire that other cases in this special issue discuss (see Murawski; Sosnina; Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay; all in this issue).

Making the Unknown: The Laboratory of Ethnographic Conceptualism

Like conceptual art and the anthropology of the contemporary, EC reveals social and aesthetic potentialities. It elicits new responses and reactions, explicates unexpected links, points out unforeseen aesthetic figurations. But if it is no avant-garde as it does not posit a “new world” that it aims to achieve by artistic or research means, and if what it does then is add complexity and multiplicity to the existing world, what does it add to anthropology and art that deal with complexity and multiplicity? What difference does ethnographic conceptualism make/describe with regard to what was called in the 1980s the postmodern and now the emergent and open-ended?

Hirokazu Miyazaki and Annelise Riles observed that the focus on emergence, complexity, and assemblage “implicitly resigns to the fact that little can be known about the world except for the fact of complexity, indeterminacy and open-endedness.” In these “aesthetics of emergence” there is “a retreat from knowing.” Furthermore, this retreat avoids, from their point of view, the recognition of failure of our own knowledge, as the anthropology of the contemporary locates indeterminacy and complexity “out there” in the world (Miyazaki and Riles 2005:327), rather than within our own episteme. As a solution, they suggest that we observe this failure of knowledge in parallel between the ethnographic knowledge situation and the contexts that we explore. For instance, in the financial markets that Miyazaki and Riles study, they observe an analogous retreat from knowing and a replacement of knowledge with hope.

“The method of hope” is a valuable resource for ethnographic conceptualism that Felix Ringel (this issue) deploys by means of his conceptualist interventions in Hoyerswerda, a town which used to be a model of socialist modernity in the GDR but has undergone a steep decline following German reunification. But there his own “method of hope” is not merely analogous to his informants’ but mutually constitutive. The social reality that he depicts is partly a reaction to himself writing anthropological commentary in a local newspaper, engaging Hoyerswerda youth in ethnographic projects, and initiating an art project in what was once a model part of the “model city” that was soon to be demolished. Just before this block’s final deconstruction, it was painted all over, inside and outside, and filled with various artifacts—such as countless little purple figures, two inches tall and cut out of cardboard, that were installed throughout the staircases and flats, said to be “running around” and asking the tourist’s question, “Excuse me, what is the way to the city center?” (Ringel, this issue, 50).

But let me consider a different, but equally methodological, implication of the aesthetics of emergence. For me, the problem with acknowledging complexity and open-endedness is not only an implicit retreat from knowing (Miyazaki and Riles 2005) but also the opposite of this retreat. It is actually the repetition of what is already known. If we already know that things are complex, we do not really need ethnography, conceptualist or not, just to affirm that. Complexity is a good question but a bad answer.

But it is more interesting to approach complexity and open-endedness not as results but tools of highlighting what is unknown. It is in this quality that ethnographic conceptualism is useful in its performative stance. If it constructs the reality that it studies (“thesis four” above), this means that it actually fabricates the unknown. I suggest treating this complexity and open-endedness not as “fact” but anti-fact. Anti-facts identify areas of the unknown, although they are not, or at least not yet, “new results”; and they contain precisely the kind of unexpected that is central to contemporary art. The notion of anti-fact complements Helio Oiticica’s “anti-art.”

Anti-fact is different both from a fact and from the exposition of a fact as artifact. Facts already describe what is established (what “we know for a fact”). The anthropological critique of objectivism describes what procedures and arrangements and what taken for granted assumptions constitute the conditions of possibility for this knowing (Callon 1986; Latour 1999). But the vector of this description runs parallel to the vector of scientific discovery, although it renders discovery as manufacture. Artifacts are facts of sorts. They appear when the aura of complexity of science—and, as Kosuth puts it in his “Notes on the Anthropologized Art,” the “opacity” of the traditional language of art—began losing their “believability.” With that “began, through the sixties, an increased shift of locus from the ‘unbelievable’ object to what was believable and real: the context” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:99). Emergent as the context may be, in a way it is no surprise. To make it a surprise again, the anti-fact of ethnographic conceptualism is a move in the opposite direction. It defamiliarizes the context, and it is in this sense the opposite of the conceptual as in conceptual art and also in the anthropological theory as artwork that I suggested above. It is an “auto-destruction” (in Gustav Metzger sense) of concepts in the unknown.

References

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  1. From avant-garde and surrealism onwards, anthropology has been a continuous source of inspiration for contemporary art. Kosuth’s perspective is distinct as it does not draw on the anthropological trope of otherness for artistic imagination. Kosuth in fact critiques this trope as it existed in the 1970s: “what may be interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity is not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at” ([1975] 1991:121). This is not “artist as ethnographer” who is “locating truth in terms of alterity” (Foster 1995:204).
  2. A man carried two full-length sandwich boards with “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it,” printed on them (graduation exhibition, School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University, UK, 2004 [Lamarque 2010:220]).
  3. An example of this questioning of object is Air Show/Air Conditioning, a proposal for a column of air as artwork by Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson (Baldwin 1967).
  4. The Alternative History of Art, Garazh, Moscow, 2008.
  5. See also Art as Idea as Idea by Joseph Kosuth, 1966 (http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/2362).
  6. This was a radical political and cultural movement, which centered around journals Internationale Situationniste (1957–1969) and Spur (1960–1961).

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

Last updated: December 13, 2008 1:38 am

Indian art defies global conceptualism

Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway and Aicon’sSigns Taken for Wonders, are the UK’s most ambitious attempts yet to distil coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher’s “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen’s Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty’s bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy’s GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.

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The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity. Dayanita Singh’s wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai’s central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari’s celebrated “Ghost/Transmemoir”, a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.

The other, towering upwards to the North Gallery’s dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom”, consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India’s road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.

Opposite is N S Harsha’s “Reversed Gaze”, a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.

Essential to the meaning of “Reversed Gaze” is that it will be erased when the exhibition closes – a slap in the face for the predatory art market. So will the pink and purple bindi wall painting “The Nemesis of Nations” by Bharti Kher, who recently joined expensive international gallery Hauser and Wirth. And a canvas of drawings greeting visitors as they enter is all that is left of Nikhil Chopra’s performance piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar”, in which the artist this week spent three days assuming the persona of his grandfather, an immaculately dressed gentleman of the Raj, and lived and slept in a tent in Kensington Gardens, entering the gallery only to daub the canvas that stands as an art of aftermath – a memory drawing.

Painting here is a vanishing act. Maqbool Fida Husain (aged 93) has made 13 bright poster-style works – red elephants, a tea ceremony after a tiger shooting, a satirical Last Supper with dapper businessman, umbrella, briefcase, body parts – to surround the exterior of the Serpentine. MF Husain is India’s most respected artist; with these billboards, executed in his standard style of forceful black contours, angular lines and bright palette, he returns to his career origins as a painter of cinema advertisements.

In the catalogue, curator Ranjit Hoskote argues that “transcultural experience is the only certain basis of contemporary practice” and that “the chimera of auto-Orientalism, with its valorisation of a spurious authenticity to be secured as the guarantee of an embattled local against an overwhelming global, has been swept away”.

But Husain, godfather to generations of Indian artists, and indeed every piece inIndian Highway – from feminist painter Nalini Malani’s looping fantasy figures intricately inked on bamboo paper in “Tales of Good and Evil” to Jitish Kallat’s photographic series “Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer)”, chronicling the demolition of slum dwellings – proves the opposite: however hard a western gallery tries to make Indian art talk a global conceptual language, its local strengths speak louder. Indian art, on this showing, is visually arresting and thoughtful, but nothing here is formally or conceptually innovative, or aesthetically provocative. We thus respond to its distinctive idiom and themes as cultural tourists.

This is the context in which Aicon, London’s leading commercial gallery of Indian art, opened last year. Signs Taken as Wonders is a Christmas selling show but is also intelligently structured around the perennial subject of India’s shifting identities, with misrecognition the trope: out-of-focus photographs of buildings and anonymous steel workers in RAQS Collective’s “Misregistration”; deconstruction of stereotypes in Vivek Vilasini’s “Vernacular Chants” prints; the contrast between questioning pose and expression and monumentality in Riyas Komu’s cropped, close-up “Borivali Boy II”.

This show complements the Serpentine’s by emphasising the painterly, such as the fragmented textures and touches of surrealism in Husain’s veiled “Women of Yemen”. In particular, the swirling abstract patterns and slabs of twisting colour in Krishnamachari’s “Stretched Bodies” – portraits of disintegration and change that deny the possibility of single truths, and the delicate ink-on-silk drawings of his “Mumbiya” depiction of a typical citizen, which seems to fade into elusiveness as you draw near – add layers to the vision of chaotic, vibrant Mumbai in the artist’s “Ghost” installation at the Serpentine. Krishnamachari describes the average Mumbaikar as “an ocean of anxieties that have arisen from the everyday question of acceptance”. Flitting between these shows, you feel most of all that uneasiness, both in the creation of Indian art and in our uncertain response to it.

‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London to February 22 . ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Aicon Gallery, London, to January 24

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GLOBAL CONCEPTUALISM: POINTS OF ORIGIN, 1950S–1980S

SHOWINGOctober 24, 2000 – December 31, 2000

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Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, featuring more than 200 works by over 130 international artists, offers snapshots of the diverse iterations of conceptual, or idea-based, art over the course of several generations.

The exhibition examines the contemporaneous burgeoning of art that draws its meaning primarily from its content rather than from its form, or appearance, across the world beginning in the 1950s. Grouped into regional sections the exhibition is organized in two chronological sections: the 1950s through around 1973 (Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand); and 1973 through the end of the 1980s (the Soviet Union [Russia], Africa, South Korea, and Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). These periods correspond to two waves of conceptualist activities that took place in various parts of the world as post-war social and political upheaval prompted among artists a re-examination of traditional forms of representation and a renewal of questions regarding art’s social utility. Much of the art in the exhibition, which takes the form of photographs, documentation, films, videos, postcards, posters, drawings, as well as paintings, mixed media objects, and installations, was made to provoke the viewer by disturbing previously accepted ideas about social, political, and cultural systems.

Global Conceptualism; Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s was organized by the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, New York, by a curatorial team consisting of former QMA director of exhibitions Jane Farver, now director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center; artist, critic, and curator Luis Camnitzer; and Rachel Weiss, an independent curator and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The three primary organizers were joined by a corps of eleven international curators who provided intelligence on each of the regions examined. They include: László Beke (Eastern Europe), Chiba Shigeo and Reiko Tomii (Japan), Okwui Enwezor (Africa), Gao Minglu (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), Claude Gintz (Western Europe), Mari Carmen Ramírez (Latin America), Terry Smith (Australia and New Zealand), Sung Wan-Kyung (South Korea), Margarita Tupitsyn (Russia), and Peter Wollen (North America).

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How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?

Miguel A. López

Tags: Gerardo Mosquera, Luis Camnitzer

‘Tucumán Arde', 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

‘Tucumán Arde’, 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first Conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. – Eduardo Costa1

I

On 28 April 1999 the exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ opened at New York’s Queens Museum of Art. Organised by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, consisting of eleven geographically defined sections and curated by a large, international group of art historians and researchers, the exhibition formulated one of the riskiest and most controversial interpretations of so-called Conceptual art at an international level. The show was ambitious. Its structure created a geographical spill-over that called into question the lesser or secondary place to which certain critical productions had been consigned. The framework of analysis was the global set of social and political transformations that have taken place since 1950, and the emergence of new forms of political action that formed the backdrop to a renewed repertoire of visual language. Such a scope allowed the curators to gather aesthetic proposals not defined in the exhibition by a Conceptualist ‘aesthetics of immateriality’, but instead by their capacity for intervention.2This approach, without doubt, shifted the very rules according to which the history of Conceptual art had been written. Those radical changes of the modes of producing andgiving value to art exposed by ‘Global Conceptualism’ reveal complex processes in which political subjectivities oppose the consensual organisation of power and its distribution of places and roles, mobilising singular and collective resistances and dissenting energies.

Ten years on, the shockwaves can still be felt, perhaps even more intensely than at the time. In different ways, ‘Global Conceptualism’ updated some of the debates that had been attempting to raise the issue of subjectivity in social practices from a post-colonial perspective, disputing the geographical and temporal orders of a modern or colonial Occidentalism.3 Hence, it was no surprise that the show became one of the most quoted (and most questioned) referents of the revival of 1960s and 70s critical production that has taken place over the past decade in exhibitions, seminars and publications around the world.

While much has been said about the decentralising virtues of ‘Global Conceptualism’, in retrospect its most significant legacy appears not only to be the broadening of the Conceptual art map (a move that had a bearing on several subsequent curatorial projects), but the way in which the exhibition questioned the identity of a Conceptual art with universal aspirations. The curatorial operation of ‘Global Conceptualism’ started from a categorical distinction between ‘Conceptual art’ – understood as a North American and Western European aesthetic development associated with a formalist reduction inherited from abstraction and Minimalism – and ‘Conceptualism’, a term denoting a critical return to an ‘ordering of priorities’ that made visible certain aesthetic processes on a transnational level, allowing for diverse historical, cultural and political narratives to be set in place.4 Conceptualism was presented as a phenomenon that took place in a ‘federation of provinces’, with the ‘traditional hegemonic centre [being] one among many’, drawing a multiplicity of points of origin and questioning the privileged position claimed by Western modernity and its politics of representation.5 The exhibition seemed to work as a performative apparatus determined to re-politicise, reconfigure and rewrite the memory of those decades. As a result Conceptual art, which from the perspective of the United States and Western Europe had until then been an unavoidable prism for reading other critical productions, appeared fractured.

The shrewdness of the ‘Global Conceptualism’ gesture no doubt managed to effectively dominate the critical framework from which one would contemplate and validate those antagonistic practices. But more importantly, and perhaps without intending to, it allowed for the reconsideration of Conceptualism as the effect of a discourse (or multiplicity of discourses) that had itself caused breaks and a major questioning of the fabric of certain local memories – albeit in some cases at the expense of reinforcing lineages and typologies. These are complex manoeuvres, and their political implications must be addressed. What do we achieve today by reflecting on Conceptual art’s radical dimension from the perspective of the ways in which it has been historicised? How should we assess the political impact of such histories, and their effect on possible forms of recognition? Furthermore, how might we assess this effect on the production of certain forms of subjectivisation and sociability?6

II

The struggle of Latin American historiography to place local episodes within global narratives, in an attempt to counter the dominant geographies of art, has been successful. For some time now, artists such as Hélio Oiticica, León Ferrari, Lygia Clark, Alberto Greco, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Oscar Bony and Artur Barrio, or collective experiences such as ‘Tucumán Arde’ (‘Tucumán Burns’, 1968) and ‘Arte de los medios’ (‘Art of Media’, 1966), have become unavoidable references in virtually all recent accounts that trace the so-called inaugural landmarks of Conceptualism on a transcontinental scale. Today, however, this apparent expansion of discourse seems to demand renewed reflection, as it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questioning the ways in which they reappear and the roles they play within it. Such reflection will enable us to examine the anachronisms and discontinuities of historical discourse – its fragments, snippets, shreds – and activate their ability to disrupt once again the logic of the ‘verified facts’.

In the recent essay ‘Cartografías Queer’ (2008),7 the theorist Beatriz Preciado discusses the formation of historiographic models of the so-called sexual difference from the perspective of a queer epistemological critique that could be very useful for us in this task. Considering the political scope of the historical exercise, Preciado avoids the taxonomy of places, situations or individuals and instead proposes, in direct dialogue with Félix Guattari’s ‘schizoanalytic cartographies’, a map that gives an account of the technologies of representation and modes of production of subjectivities.8 This map makes explicit how certain dominant diagrams of representation of sexual minorities come dangerously close to becoming mechanisms of social control and discipline. Can we envision a way of reading and representing that does not result in an illustrative exercise of description, but that instead allows for the perception of variations and displacements that appear as forms of subjectivisation, or even as machines of political transformation that disrupt previously established arrangements?

Preciado brings into play two antagonistic historiographic figures: the conventional model of ‘identity cartography’ (or ‘cartography of the lion’, as she terms it), concerned with seeking, defining and classifying the identities of bodies; and a ‘critical cartography’ (‘queer cartography’ or ‘cartography of the bitch’), which sidesteps writing as a topography of established representations in order instead to ‘sketch out a map of the modes of production of subjectivity’, observing the ‘technologies of representation, information and communication’ as genuine performative machines.9 These two models are divergent not only in their modes of producing visibility, but also in their ways of battling the technologies that mediate the political construction of knowledge. These issues are pervaded by the relationship between power and knowledge, and even to a greater extent by biopolitical modes of production linked to the codes of representation and the allocation of places in social space.10 Such crucial issues must be considered at a time when ‘dematerialised’ logic has begun to strike up an effective dialogue with the dynamics of global capitalism on immaterial goods.11

Following (or perhaps perverting) Preciado’s reflections, it may not be difficult to acknowledge that until recently most historiographies of modern and contemporary art have been ‘cartographies of identities’. Among these, ‘Conceptual art’ surfaced as a sanctionable identity, and the historiographic task resembled that of a detective tracking down the still unfound remains of Conceptualism in order to introduce them into the topography of the visible. It strives to offer a genealogy and geography of that which is totally representable – bringing those experiences into historical account, dispelling the mists that surrounded them, and clarifying a place apparently recovered.12

But let’s try the opposite exercise too. Let’s imagine a cartography not interested in seeking out the fragments of Conceptual art, one that even doubts the existence of such pieces. Let’s imagine a map that instead aims to explore the label itself, observing its uses and noting how it produces identities in different contexts; a map that, before attempting to function as a technique of representation, tries to expose power relations, ‘the architecture, displacement and spatialisation of power as a technology for the production of subjectivity’.13 Here it would no longer be a question of establishing formal resemblances between works, or of dating those that can effectively guide us in recognising the ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Conceptualist’ category (and its regional derivatives such as ‘Argentinean’, ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Latin American’) but, rather, of finding out how those narratives have determined the materiality and forms of visibility of what they hoped to describe, how they have negotiated their place within and without the institution and distributed it after having transformed these critical art forms into received knowledge.

Taking that tension between the cartographic models in their identitarian and queer versions as a starting point, I would like to pose a series of questions concerning some of the recent cartographical representations of Conceptual art: first, by revisiting one of the most influential accounts of so-called Latin American Conceptualism and the re-inscription of the ‘ideological’ as a category from which to consider aesthetic trends in the region; and second, by analysing a recent, almost unnoticed Argentinean exhibition that proposed a strategy for reflecting politically on how it is possible to reassess the ruptures triggered by 1960s avant-garde movements and the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. The show, notably, put forward an approach to the archive that refuses to treat this event as a chapter in the history of art and instead reactivates the anachronistic heterogeneity of meanings borne by the documentary remnants.

III

It was not until the early 1990s that one of the first programmatic essays of Latin American Conceptualism was published, and its ideological reverberations have accompanied many of the considerations on the subject since. Art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote the essay ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ (1993) for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, curated by Waldo Rasmussen and organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992.14The exhibition, which was first opened to the public in Seville and produced in the context of the celebrations commemorating the fifth centenary of the ‘discovery of America’ – a controversial exhibition on account of its perceived condescending and stereotyping discourse15 – was one of the culminating stages of the boom of Latin American art that began in the mid-1980s and fostered a depoliticised representation of Latin American culture and history, which was strongly associated with private promotional and funding interests both in the US and Latin America. The political landscape at that time included the re-establishment of democratic governments throughout the subcontinent, the internal crisis of the Left and the introduction of neo-liberal policies following the Washington Consensus.16 For several of the intellectuals who were symbolically mediating the cultural production between North and South America at the time, such as the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera, the Chilean feminist cultural critic Nelly Richard or Ramírez herself, it was clear that what was at stake were the mechanisms of representation of the American continent at the end of the Cold War, and therefore a totally renewed political economy of signs catalysed by a sequence of exhibitions of Latin American art outside of Latin America – exhibitions that effectively were beginning to draw a new exotic, formalist and neo-colonial framework of interpretation.17

The very title of the text – ‘Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ – announced Ramírez’s focus on disruptive aesthetic forms and their socio-cultural conditions, something that was not in Rasmussen’s exhibition. The essay attempted to provide a unitary legibility to radical experiences that had until then been in large part unrelated (some of which not only had remained indifferent to the nomenclature but even rejected it),18 and by doing so it gave the label ‘Latin American Conceptualism’ one of its first major concrete manifestations. Ramírez’s intention was to challenge the then common assumption that Latin American Conceptual art was a poor, late imitation of Conceptual art ‘from the centre’, and hoped to politicise its readings by means of an argument that assigned positive value to an apparent Latin American difference. In opposition to the limited North American and British ‘analytical’ or ‘tautological’ model, the Latin American model was presented as ‘ideological Conceptualism’. Ramírez traced this binary distinction back to 1974, when it was discussed by the Spanish critic Simón Marchán Fiz, but did not go as far as to question it.19

Ramírez believed the dichotomy revealed the prominence of the ideas of a sadly self-referential Kosuth, heir apparent to the positivist legacy of Modernism. ‘In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to a tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself,’20Ramírez says, echoing – voluntarily or not – some of the criticism that art historian Benjamin Buchloh had put forward fiercely just four years before,21 and indirectly playing down the political dimension implicit in the linguistic turn and its break with late-modern formalism. She thereby created an interpretative formula repeated almost to the letter in several of her subsequent essays, opposing, in general terms, a ‘depoliticised’ North American canon with a ‘political’ Latin American Conceptualism that subverts the structure of the former and actively intervenes in social space. The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.22

However, our intention here is not to denounce an ‘incorrect’ reading of Conceptualism, to dispute labels or to reduce Ramírez’s discourse to the use of such categories (conversely, her work puts forward noteworthy observations on the political use of communication and the ‘recovery’ of the mass-produced object in these processes). Rather, it instead is to note how that ‘difference’ shaped a specific visibility and morphology, making the distinction part of many of the debates surrounding the interpretations of the situation and, surprisingly or not, part of the ‘central’, dominant narratives, where it functions as a mystifying cliché in a process of categorisation and normalisation. Returning to some of Ramírez’s ideas, the philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne observes:

‘Ideological content’ is the key term of Latin American Conceptual art. In distinction from the more formal ideational concerns of most US and European Conceptual art (the act/event, mathematical series, linguistic propositions or the structures of cultural forms), this was an art for which ‘ideology itself became the fundamental “material identity” of the conceptual proposition.’23

Along similar lines, though without circumscribing the ‘analytical-linguistic’ to North American Conceptualism, Alexander Alberro repeats the argument:

[T]he most extreme alternatives to models of analytic Conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 70s are those that developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile.24

And in a more recent book, formulated as a Conceptualist ‘census’ of Spain with categories such as ‘poetic’, ‘political’ and ‘peripheral’, the historian Pilar Parcerisas revisits Ramírez’s thesis,25 scorning ‘the premises of the analytical orthodoxy of Conceptual art in English-speaking countries’ by attempting to elaborate on the political character of the ‘periphery’. From a range of perspectives in Latin America, that difference has been repeatedly recovered, with variations, in several recent accounts of the 1960s and 70s.26

Rather than objecting to the use of the term or any of its related epithets, what I am attempting to do is underline the need to deploy it as a diagram of power, to assess which meanings and distinctions, and which processes of normalisation and resistance are concealed in such consensual representations. This reconsideration demands a different articulation to the other concepts used by critics and artists when considering their own positions: minor expressions (to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari),27 the gradual erosion of which has contributed to the standardisation of radical experiences in order that they may establish an ‘appropriate’ exchange with centralist discourses.

For example, it would be provocative to consider the term ‘dematerialisation’ in the context of Argentina’s experimental art scene in the 1960s as the Argentinean theoretician Oscar Masotta proposed in 1967 – independently from Lucy Lippard – as deriving from El Lissitsky and his plan to integrate artists into the publishing industry of revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.28It also would be challenging to rethink a term such as ‘no-objetualismo‘ (non-object-based art), coined in Mexico by Peruvian critic Juan Acha around 1973, as part of a Marxist approach to counter-cultural protest and collective artistic experiences of the Mexican ‘grupos’ (Proceso Pentagono, Grupo Suma and No-Grupo, among others), but most significantly to indigenous aesthetic processes, such as popular art and design, that question Western art history.29 Or to re-examine concepts that artists employ to reflect on their own practice: Argentinean Ricardo Carreira uses the term ‘deshabituación‘ (‘dishabituation’) to refer to an aesthetic theory based on the political transformation of the environment through estrangement.30 In the early 1960s Alejandro Jodorowsky spoke of ‘efímeros‘ (‘ephemerals’) in reference to his series of improvised and provocative actions confronting conventional theatre, halfway between psychotropic mysticism and fantastic esotericism,31 while Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s ‘revulsive’ aesthetic agenda pledged to destabilise the roles of the artist – on other occasions Vigo defined himself as an ‘un-maker of objects’.32 These are but a few of the entries in the critical repertoire still in the shadow of the hegemonic rhetoric. Such subterranean theoretical constructs pose a latent conflict, a multitude of not-yetarticulated and potential genealogies. Beyond mere naming, these words appear as proof of the fact that there is something irreducible – a discordant crossing of stories that point to divergent ways of living and constructing the contemporary – its capacity to unfold other times.

IV

Forty years after ‘Tucumán Arde’, the exhibition ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, organised in 2008 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, offered one of the sharpest readings among the host of curatorial approaches that have explored the episodes of radicalism and rupture in Argentina in 1968.33 That year, several groups of artists, film-makers, journalists and intellectuals organised a series of experiences that connected cultural and artistic production with dissenting forms of political intervention – often with revolutionary claims – in collaboration with militant sectors of the workers’ movement. These collaborations dramatically modified artistic and cultural practices, resulting in progressively radicalised experiences in several contexts. In this context, a group of artists – invited to the exhibition ‘Experiencias ’68’ that was organised by the pre-eminent Instituto Di Tella – broke with the institution, exhibiting in ‘Experiencias’ politically critical artworks. When the police banned one of these – an installation of a public toilet, in which the public wrote slogans critical of the military dictatorship – the artists protested, destroying their works in the streets and distributing a text denouncing the increasing repression in the country. This incident became the trigger for a major rethinking of their commitment to the artistic avant-garde, formulating a new programme of action that comprises the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. Once outside of the institution, the artists began a process of documentation and social intervention aimed at generating counter-information about the causes and consequences of the crisis that was affecting the Tucumán province after the closure of several sugar mills, and then mounting two public displays in the labour unions in Rosario and in Buenos Aires, which was closed by the police. The project connected artists with sociologists, journalists, theorists, unions, the workers’ movement and others in a process of dispute and intervention in which aesthetic and political strategies were interchanged.34

The ‘Inventario’ exhibition tried to re-assess the celebrated entry of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into the canonical historiography of international art,35 as well as its recognition as a foundational episode of Latin American, even global, ‘ideological Conceptualism’ (or ‘the mother of all political works’, as artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby has ironically called it).36 The project introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimisation and institutionalisation of ‘political art’ that in recent years had focused on the 1968 events, in particular on ‘Tucumán Arde’, and resulted in a global tour that took it, among other places, to documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.37 What is won and what is lost in the process of ‘Tucumán Arde’ becoming a legend? How should we approach the complex and heterogeneous weft of political subjectivities inscribed in the rupture of the Argentinean avant-garde of the 1960s? Is ‘Tucumán Arde’, as a landmark, a watershed moment, capable of giving an account of the most intense and radical moments of that process?

The exhibition took the transformation of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into an artwork as its starting point, approached through a selection of photographs and documents from the Carnevale archive in an attempt to visually compose a chronological micro-narrative that would describe the events of 1968. The adoption of this origin not only implied returning to the several narratives in which the Argentinean event had been inscribed over the past decade, but also exploring the documentary framework, the material background from which those reconstructions seemed to appear and disappear. The archive was put forward as capable of disrupting all narrative certainty. The exhibition had four sections, and its focus was on the display of the Carnevale archive, the most comprehensive archive of Argentinean art in the 1960s. The installation made the archive freely available (providing desks and the possibility of consulting and copying documents), enabling the circulation of conflicting accounts coming from other people involved at the time. If the fetishising logic had managed to fix the image of ‘Tucumán Arde’, reducing its complexities to mere forms with seemingly immediate meaning, this exhibition attempted to suggest a totally different cartography based on the analysis of the processes of institutional legibility, their discursive production, exhibition formats, economic transformations and publishing products, uncovering their interrelations and tensions.

‘Inventario’ opened with a long, empty corridor in which beams of light were aimed at the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel a large number of archival images (many of them photographs taken by the group of artists from Buenos Aires and Rosario in 1968) were projected, accompanied by audio fragments of interviews held in the 1990s with trade unionists, artists and student leaders, protagonists and witnesses of several of the actions.38The entrance thereby presented an empty architecture that both revealed its own modes of display and suggested the impossibility of establishing a single story, disrupting, implicitly, the idea of the singular official version.

A second corridor presented a substantial part of Carnevale’s archive on walls and tables: photographs, posters, catalogues, writings and manifestos of the various Argentinean avant-garde events, alongside graphic work, pictures and other documents of experiences that connected art and politics in other contexts (from silkscreen prints by Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia to posters of the Brigadas Ramona Parra made before or during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and others of the Encuentros de Plástica Latinoamericana in Havana). A panel in a third corridor traced the numerous events and exhibitions in which ‘Tucumán Arde’ had been recovered, quoted, exhibited or referenced, including information about the political and economic protocols in place in each institution, and photographs of how it was installed on each occasion. Materials related to the exhibition venue of ‘Inventario’ and the catalogue of the project (a detailed inventory of all the material in Carnevale’s archive) were displayed on several of the tables, where each publication, catalogue and edition referenced in the gallery was made available. Finally, a space presented the contributions of two recent archives generated by Argentinean activist-artists more recently involved in local experiences, posing questions about the different ways of granting visibility to those practices in an exhibition space.

The show was constructed as a series of interludes that paradoxically reformulated the collisions that had initially configured the history of the archive. The passage between one space and another acted as a distancing effect that rejected any possible teleology of facts. While the first gallery had seemed to point out the impossibility of a narrative through the random polyphony of voices and images, the third gave an account of an ‘excess of narratives’ on ‘Tucumán Arde’ and on its own construction (historiographic, curatorial, institutional, economic and social) through its recognisable trajectories and the multiple ways in which it was activated.39 Conversely, in the second gallery, the archive appeared as a potential story, an exhibited archive in use that offered its own migratory movements, its excesses and absences, its revolutions to come.

Put to use, the archive not only attempted to misplace ‘Tucumán Arde’, but to question its simple narration, re-enacting its original misidentification (its initial refusal to describe its practice as art but also its dissolution as an event driven by urgency), opening and exposing the layers of sedimentation it had accumulated. Unlike some recent interpretations that have tried to make it legible as a work of art either by taking a small number of documents and images accompanied by comments, a system of marks and footnotes for illustration purposes, or else by a total lack of comments or stories (dangerously verging on aestheticisation, as in documenta 12), this mise en scène brought fragments together according to their differences, including everything that was usually excluded from the consensual art-historical configurations that repeated its name. The installation of this exhibition rejected from the start all ‘reasonable’ understanding, showing, as Georges Didi-Huberman would say, not only the direction of its movement but the locus of its agitations.40

By presenting the actual archive, ‘Inventario’ also fell into contradictions: in spite of an attempt to present a multiplicity of times and events, as reflected by the heterogeneous archival material presented in the second tunnel, the inclusion of images of some of the most recognisable actions within ‘Tucumán Arde’ contributed to a repetition of the excessive prominence that ‘Tucumán Arde’ had already been given in written accounts of the late 1960s experiences. The photographs displayed throughout the gallery space, which had been enlarged for previous exhibitions in which they had been shown, provided an imposing presence themselves, at times even offering an unwitting chronology, especially if compared to the assemblage of documents that pointed to the complexity and impossibility of offering full descriptions. And yet, is it possible to escape from this already constructed significance?

V

In his most recent book, Luis Camnitzer establishes two key events for the reading of Latin American Conceptualism: the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the late 1960s in Uruguay, and the experience of rupture that led to ‘Tucumán Arde’ in 1968.41 What is important for me here is the invocation of the Argentinean experience in relation to politics from the point of view of militants, or even armed conflict. Despite the possible good intentions behind its attempt to politicise historiographic accounts, we should ask ourselves whether the twosome Tupamaros/’Tucumán Arde’ and the idealised image of ‘resistance’ in which it places the Latin American Conceptual art history implies a pre-established consensus that reaffirms a certain stereotype of subversive art. If that is the case, does this point to a dead end for the politicisation of Conceptualism, and for its criticism? To what extent has an experience such as ‘Inventario’ managed to suggest an alternative representation of the usual story, to fracture narrative certainties or to dispute its stereotyped places? Is it possible to establish a topography of that which cannot yet be named, an index that refuses nomenclatures and stands alone, only to become disorder and pure unpredictability?

I have followed two clues in what I consider the cartographic or diagrammatic forms of critical reading that operate in tension with recent processes of historicisation of ‘Latin American Conceptualism’. The first is an open question that speculates on the interpretative categories stabilised and legitimised in a specific order of discourse, and other secondary notions subsumed in that particular configuration of the ‘Latin American’ which presents itself as a uniform fabric – decentred concepts that would otherwise distort the usual flows of meaning and expose us to dissenting testimonies. The second is the gap between the conventional exhibition formats of ‘Tucumán Arde’, between the individuation of a set of documents that present the chronology of what is considered the artistic ‘episode’, and the presentation of the archive that disrupts and dismantles the order of this appearance. Besides its obvious limitations, the return to the archive is also a misidentification of an event countless times named – classified, arranged, defined – and whose name and materiality are repeatedly questioned in an attempt to bring difference to the surface. On display are merely temporary installations that enable us to return to those operations as a potential space from which to redefine relations between spaces, words and bodies.42

Forty years ago the Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa made a piece in which he proposed a counter-history of Latin American Conceptualism, one based on mixing up the dates: A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. In this short text, written for the exhibition ‘Art in the Mind’, Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging ‘reasonable’ consolidations by historical narrative – a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error.43 His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken – that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand, and that an erratic alteration in its diagram of successions simply adds to its most joyous (in)coherence, celebrating its impossibility.

Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it. This does not mean giving up on historical reflection, but rather corrupting whatever degree of Christian fidelity and Calvinist obedience history still inspires, unravelling its destiny and ultimate causes. Looking back at those events consigned to oblivion should allow us to recover their salutary force, their emancipatory thrill and at the same time to activate a nostalgia for the future. We do not recover the past in order to make it exist as a bundle of skeletons, but to disturb the orders and assurances of the present. The task of reintegrating the subversive component of whatever we happen to be historicising can’t be resolved by communicating as truth what we apparently know. It is neither a question of producing exhibitions or books on a certain theme, nor of drawing up lists, directories or summaries. It is a question of making the event spill over and break down established modes of thinking about the past and the future, and generating ways of allowing for whatever is excluded to eventually challenge the consensus and bring back the parts of an unresolved conflict.

Footnotes
  1. Eduardo Costa, quoted in Athena T. Spear (ed.), Art in the Mind (exh. cat.), Oberlin, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1970, n.p.
  2. The term ‘dematerialisation’, introduced by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, for a long time was used as the key term to identify Conceptual art in North America and Western Europe. See Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’,Art International, vol.12, no.2, February 1968, pp.31-36 and Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973.
  3. In Latin America those discussions happened around the Bienal de La Habana, which, since its creation in 1984, has become an important forum of discussion disengaged from the international art market. Another significant moment at an international scale is the coinciding in 1997 of documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and the second Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor.
  4. Luis Camnitzer points out that ‘while “conceptual art” is an anecdotal little label in the history of universal art, “conceptualism” as a strategy created a rupture in the appreciation of all art and in the behaviour of artists, regardless of their location’. Fernando Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer: “Global Conceptualism fue algo intestinal e incontrolable, al mismo tiempo que presuntuoso y utópico”‘, Ramona, no.86, November 2008, p.29. See also Rachel Weiss, ‘Re-writing Conceptual Art’, Papers d’Art, no.93, 2007, pp.198-202. Translation the author’s.
  5. F. Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer’, op. cit., p.26.
  6. This last question was put forward by theoretician José Luis Brea in his considerations of the political effects of visuality. See J.L. Brea, ‘Los estudios visuales: por una epistemología política de la visualidad’, in J.L. Brea (ed.), Los estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización, Madrid: Akal, 2005, pp.5-14.
  7. Beatriz Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer: El flâneur perverso, la lesbiana topofóbica y la puta multicartográfica, o cómo hacer una cartografía “zorra” con Annie Sprinkle’, in José Miguel Cortés (ed.), Cartografías disidentes, Madrid: SEACEX, 2008, n.p.
  8. See Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1989.
  9. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  10. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt remind us, these biopolitical modes of production do not only involve the production of tangible goods in a purely economic sense, but ‘affect all spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life, at the same time as they produce them’. A. Negri and M. Hardt, ‘Preface’, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.xi.
  11. Boris Groys has clearly expressed some of the effects of this paradox in art: ‘If life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicised, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.’ Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, Documenta 11_ Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), 2002, p.109.
  12. The issue also involves the critical modes of working around the concepts that sustain these historiographic exercises. It is possible to say, for instance, that to a certain extent ‘Global Conceptualism’ adopted the task of the ethnologist, raking up experiences in different geographies and marking its affinities and Conceptualist identities, and yet, paradoxically, its strategy facilitated the mise-en-critique of identity itself. An acritical example of the identity discourse is provided by Álvaro Barrios’s book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1999), which offers a narrative made up of interviews in which several leading figures of the 1960s and 70s guide the story’s main character (Barrios himself), who appears increasingly convinced of his ability to truly recover the unrecognised Conceptualist element. Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1968-1978), Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 1999.
  13. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  14. Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’, in Waldo Rasmussen, Fatima Bercht and Elizabeth Ferrer (ed.), Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, pp.156-67.
  15. The exhibition presented Latin American art production as a tame continuation of modern Western aesthetic movements, avoiding any type of political reflection on the colonial history of the subcontinent. Most critics agreed in characterising it as a blatant attempt to ‘maintain a total control of the ideological and aesthetic premises […] and of their interpretation’ from categories projected from the outside. Shifra M. Goldman, ‘Artistas latinoamericanos del siglo XX, MoMA’ (trans. Magdalena Holguín), ArtNexus, no.10, September-December 1993, pp.84-89.
  16. Drawn up in 1989 and promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Washington Consensus is a list of measures for economic reform that presented itself as the ‘best’ programme to face the crisis and ‘underdevelopment’ of Latin America, among which were liberalisation of trade and investment, deregulation and a general withdrawal of the state from economic matters.
  17. Some of these debates, from a Latin American cultural perspective opposed to European and North American dominance, can be found in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1995.
  18. Juan Pablo Renzi, a driving force in ‘Tucumán Arde’, was emphatic about this. In a work titled Panfleto no.3. La nueva moda (Pamphlet no.3. The New Fashion, 1971), which he contributed to the ‘Arte de Sistemas’ exhibition organised by the Museo de Arte Moderno/Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires in 1971, he stated: ‘What is in fashion now is Conceptual art […] and it turns out that (at least for some critics like Lucy Lippard and Jorge Glusberg) I am one of those responsible for the onset of this phenomenon (together with my colleagues from the ex-groups of revolutionary artists in Rosario and Buenos Aires from ’67 to ’68). This assertion is mistaken. Just as any intention of linking us to that aesthetic speculation is mistaken.’ And he concludes: ‘REGARDING OUR MESSAGES: 1. We are not interested in them being considered aesthetic. 2. We structure them according to their contents. 3. They are always political and are not always transmitted by official channels like this one. 4. We are not interested in them as works but as a means of denouncing exploitation.’
  19. The same reference to Marchán Fiz’s ‘ideological Conceptualism’ had already been made one year earlier by the North American critic Jacqueline Barnitz in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Encounters/ Displacements. Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles’, curated by Ramírez and Beverly Adams. However, Ramírez’s voice was the one that consolidated and furthered the argument most effectively, making it an indispensable reference for many subsequent interpretations. A decisive factor in this consolidation was the repetition of the line of argument in the catalogue of ‘Global Conceptualism’ and later on in two large-scale international surveys of Latin American art she was also in charge of: ‘Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar 1918-1968′ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2000; and ‘Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America’ at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004. Marchán Fiz doesn’t quite completely confine the ‘ideologisation’ to Conceptual art from Latin American nor self-referentiality to European/North American work. See J. Barnitz, ‘Conceptual Art in Latin America: A Natural Alliance’, in M.C. Ramírez and B. Adams (ed.), Encounters/Displacements: Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles (exh. cat.), Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1992, pp.35-47; M.C. Ramírez, ‘Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980′, in L. Camnitzer, J. Farver and R. Weiss (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (exh. cat.), op. cit., pp.53-71; Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid: Alberto Corazón Editor, 1974 [1972].
  20. M.C. Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits’, op. cit., p.156.
  21. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art, 1962-1969)’, in l’art conceptuel, une perspective (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, pp.41-53.
  22. Historian Jaime Vindel has also noted the contradictions in responding to the centre/periphery relationship through an equally binary opposition: ‘By basing their position on an antagonist with no real voice, these discourses run the risk of making their publicity dependent on the centre/periphery logic against which they declare they stand and to which they are still yielding.’ J. Vindel, ‘A propósito [de la memoria] del arte político: Consideraciones en torno a “Tucumán Arde” como emblema del conceptualismo latinoamericano’, lecture given at the 5th International Conference of Theory and History of the Arts – 13th CAIA Symposium, Buenos Aires, October 2009.
  23. Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002, p.37.
  24. Alexander Alberro, ‘Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977, in A. Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp.xxv-xxvi.
  25. Pilar Parcerisas, Conceptualismo(s) Poéticos, Políticos, Periféricos: En torno al arte conceptual en España. 1964-1980, Madrid: Akal, 2007, p.27.
  26. In a 1997 text Camnitzer celebrated Ramírez’s argument, which he found enlightening for its understanding of the regional differences of Conceptualism, which emphasised the relationship between Duchamp and the modern tradition of Mexican muralism, starting from its foray into the social sphere with communicative goals. Broadly speaking, however, Camnitzer shares Ramírez’s view of North American Conceptual art, which he brands ‘a quasi-mystical search for the imponderable’. L. Camnitzer, ‘Una genealogía del arte conceptual latino-americano’, Continente Sul Sur, no.6, November 1997, p.187. Other historians who have used the expression ‘ideological Conceptualism’ more or less critically over the past few years include Andrea Giunta, Ana Longoni, María José Herrera, Ivonne Pini, Miguel González, Cristina Freire and Alberto Giudici. Due to problems of space, this text will not compare the conflicting meanings and the implications inscribed in their uses.
  27. ‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. […] The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. […] We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (trans. Dana B. Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp.16-18.
  28. See Oscar Masotta, ‘Después del pop, nosotros desmaterializamos’ (1967), in O. Masotta,Revolución en el arte: Pop-art, happenings y arte de los medios en la década del sesenta, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2004, pp.335-76. For Lucy Lippard’s use of the term, see L.R. Lippard, Six Years, op. cit.
  29. As yet, there is no study dealing with Juan Acha’s critical thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and the political process that led to the emergence of ‘no-objetualismo‘. For a first, partial attempt, see Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, ‘Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los Sesenta’, in Juan Acha, Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass-media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos [1969], Lima: IIMA – Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp.1-17.
  30. Ana Longoni, ‘El Deshabituador: Ricardo Carreira in the Beginnings of Conceptualism’, in Viviana Usubiaga and A. Longoni, Arte y literatura en la Argentina del siglo XX, Buenos Aires: Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Espigas and FIAAR, 2006, pp.159-203.
  31. See Cuauhtémoc Medina, ‘Recovering Panic’, in Olivier Debroise (ed.), The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico DF: UNAM, 2007, pp.97-103.
  32. In October 1968, in a newspaper and on local radio Vigo made the surprising call for his first ‘señalamiento‘ (‘appointment’) titled Manojo de Semáforos (A Handful of Traffic Lights). The proposal called for people to look at an ordinary object for its aesthetic potential to cause ‘revulsion’. See F. Davis, ‘Prácticas “revulsivas”: Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo’, in C. Freire and A. Longoni (ed.), Conceitualismos do Sul/Sur, São Paulo: Annablume, USP-MAC and AECID, 2009, pp.283-98.
  33. ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, Centro Cultural Parque de España, Rosario (3 October-9 November 2008). The team working on the show was made up of the artist Graciela Carnevale, historians Ana Longoni and Fernando Davis, and Ana Wandzik, an artist from Rosario. This project constituted the first curatorial experiment in political activation by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur group.
  34. For further discussion of the experiences of 1968 in Argentina, see G. Carnevale et al. (ed.), Tucumán Arde. Eine Erfahrung: Aus dem Archiv von Graciela Carnevale, Berlin: b_books, 2004.
  35. While its earliest mentions date back to the late 1960s, its incorporation within the canon since the late 1990s, through a series of essays, exhibitions and publications, quickly multiplied its visibility. International exhibitions include I Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 1997; ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 and ‘Heterotopías’ in 2000; ‘Ambulantes. Cultura Portátil’ curated by Rosa Pera at CAAC, Seville; ‘Inverted Utopias’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004; and ‘Be what you want but stay where you are’, curated by Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2005.
  36. Roberto Jacoby, ‘Tucucu mama nana arara dede dada’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.86-91.
  37. Even though the most prevalent reading of ‘Tucumán Arde’ places it within the ‘Conceptual’ genealogy, others have tried to relate it to a history of political intervention, collective production or militant research. Examples of this are the dossier ‘Les fils de Marx et Mondrian: Dossier argentine’, published in Robho magazine (nos.5-6, 1971, pp.16-22) or anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of ‘Tucumán Arde’ in the context of the process of integration of artistic avant-gardes with popular organisations. See N. García Canclini, ‘Vanguardias artísticas y cultura popular’, Transformaciones, no.90, 1973, pp.273-75. More recently, Brian Holmes has noted the impact this experience had on several activist groups operating in Europe in the late 1990s. See A. Longoni, Daniela Lucena et al., ‘”Un sentido como el de Tucumán Arde lo encontramos hoy en el zapatismo”: Entrevista colectiva a Brian Holmes’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.7-22. Similar readings are proposed by exhibitions such as ‘Antagonismes. Casos d’estudi’, curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero at MACBA, Barcelona, 2001; ‘Collective Creativity: Common Ideas for Life and Politics’, curated by What, How and for Whom at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel in 2005 and the project ExArgentina, organised by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmman.
  38. The interviews were conducted by Mariano Mestman and A. Longoni; some of them were eventually published in their book Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán Arde’. Vanguardia artística y política en el ’68 argentino, Buenos Aires: El cielo por asalto, 2000.
  39. See F. Davis and A. Longoni, ‘Apuntes para un balance difícil: Historia mínima de “Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale”‘, unpublished text presented at the 2nd Red Conceptualismos del Sur Reunion, Rosario, October 2008.
  40. ‘Politics are only displayed by exposing the conflicts, the paradoxes, the reciprocal clashes that weave history,’ says Didi-Huberman in his considerations of the Brechtian notion of montage. ‘[M]ontage appears as the procedure par excellence in this exposition: its objects are not revealed when taking position but once they have been taken apart, as is said in French to describe the violence of a “unbridled” storm, wave against wave, or as is said of a watch “dismantled”, i.e. analysed, explored and therefore spread by the passion of knowing applied by a philosopher or a Baudelairian child.’ G. Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes toman posición, Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2008, p.153. Editors’ translation.
  41. See L. Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp.44-72. Camnitzer, however, points at alternative coordinates, such as the writings of nineteenth-century Venezuelan writer and educator Simón Rodríguez, who taught Simón Bolívar. For Camnitzer, the Tupamaros’s use of ‘aestheticised military operations’ and Rodríguez’s ‘ideological aphorisms’ contribute to what he calls a ‘didactics of liberation': communication process aimed at generating actual changes in society.
  42. ‘Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions “proper” to such classifications.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘Dix thèses sur la politique’, Aux Bords du Politique, Paris: Gallimard, p.229.
  43. A.T. Spear, Art in the Mind, op. cit. Translated by Josephine Watson.

Five Essays by Hal Foster on Painting

==

Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial,Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuiltMonument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

==

SIGMAR POLKE

At MoMA

Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

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THE PAINTING OF MODER LIFE

At the Hayward

Hal Foster

The Painting of Modern Life, the first show at the Hayward Gallery curated by its American director, Ralph Rugoff, is an ambitious attempt to see how this artistic project stands nearly 150 years after Charles Baudelaire proposed it in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). There the poet called for a shift in subject matter – already begun in the practice of Manet and others – away from the grand themes of myth and history, and towards the everyday activities of urban life, especially of middle-class leisure. Such a shift in content implied a shift in form, even in medium; for example, to capture the mobility of bourgeois types on the town, the sketch might be more useful than other means (the exemplar in the essay is not the great Manet but Constantin Guys, who was then known for his quick studies). What better vehicle to convey ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ – key qualities of the metropolitan kaleidoscope, according to Baudelaire – than the photograph? Yet the poet remained suspicious of the new medium, in part because he did not see its potential for imaginative invention, in part because he did not deem it suited to the ‘other half’ of his mandate for art, which was to extract ‘the eternal and the immutable’ from this protean modernity. The other half was still the province of painting, and so painting – perhaps pressured by photographic attributes – remained the essential medium.

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

The Hayward show picks up the representation of modern life a century later. In the interim, Rugoff suggests in the catalogue, the tense relationship between painting and photography slackened, as painting withdrew into abstraction (a comment on modernity in its own right), and photography became the favoured means of modern imaging (there are many exceptions, of course, but the curator should be allowed his premise). However, as the 1960s began, Rugoff continues, artists associated with Pop and photorealism – Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley – turned again to photography, not only as a source of images but as a way to convey the look of consumer society, already processed as so much of it was through photographic media: that is, through the ads, news photos, amateur snapshots and postcards that the painters had begun to adapt.

The exhibition begins here, and the early work looks superb still, fresh to the eye, however familiar the artists are now, and incisive about its times. In the first galleries Rugoff offers a nice range of photographic effects translated into painting in this initial moment: Hamilton capturing the tabloid glare of celebrity visibility in a lurid image of Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser after a drugs bust; Warhol eliciting shock cut with indifference with a newswire photo of a car crash silk-screened 11 times across a rust-orange canvas; Richter producing an empathic response in his blurred representation of a pretty woman distorted by grief (we learn it is Jackie Kennedy after the assassination); and so on – so many visions of a world more and more mediated by images, which painting, because of its remove and its delay, is able to explore in ways that photography cannot.

Yet the great interest of the show is the uncertainty – the epistemological ambiguity, the historical instability – visited on both photography and painting over the last four decades. The two media partake of different sign systems: photography is conventionally seen as indexical, a photochemical impression of the world, and (representational) painting as iconic, with a resemblance to the world that is less direct, more mediated by material, touch and tradition. A painting is also worked up over time, and usually taken in over time too; Rugoff writes well about the ‘slowness’ of painting, which in this instance allows us to review and to reflect on its photographic sources. Yet even in the 1960s these different attributes are not easily assigned to one medium or the other.

Take the vaunted reality effect of photography, affirmed by theorists from André Bazin to Roland Barthes. Some of the artists in the show are not so sure. Richter remarks that photography is ‘a crutch to help me get to reality’, yet that he can approximate this goal only through painting; this leaves him with the paradoxical formulation, ‘I am practising photography by other means.’ For Celmins, whose meticulous translations of a Timemagazine cover, military craft and a Los Angeles freeway are on display, it is also painting, and not photography, that puts the image ‘back into the real world – in real time … the here and now’. Moreover, as the show proceeds, the source images become less photochemical, more electronic, less analogue, more digital (they often derive from television, video and the internet), and so what counts as the photographic gets stretched – stretched, in fact, towards painterly manipulations. Hamilton explored this complication early on; as early as 1969 he noted the proliferation of ‘lens-formulated images whatever the chemistry or electronics involved.’

Consider, too, the question of spectatorial distance: is this a photographic quality or a painterly one? For Rugoff, it seems, it is painting that builds such detachment into the work, yet for others this distance is associated with photography: Richter speaks of his photographic blur as a ‘protection’, and Warhol of his photographic repetition as an anaesthesia (‘meaning goes away’). Or consider, conversely, our proximity to the image, as with the photorealist canvases of Morley, who describes his painting as a ‘hallucination’, or of the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch (a welcome rediscovery), whose huge scenes of hippy life loom towards us with garish details: neither strictly photographic nor strictly painterly, this visual intensity is effected through a combination of properties of both media. Indeed, some of the best works in the show mix effects of distance and proximity, the detached and the insistent, through a precise complication of painting and photography. Rugoff describes this mixed quality as ‘uncanny’ or ‘absurd’, but little seems repressed here, and nothing nonsensical; his impression of a ‘denatured’ world is more exact. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Foucault once argued, did away with resemblance, but still affirmed the real; they simply located it elsewhere, in a transcendental beyond. Surrealist painters like Magritte performed a stranger trick: they held on to resemblance, but allowed the real to slip away; similitude remained while reference vanished. For some of the artists here this appearance without substance is the odd nature of the postwar world, and they bring us back compelling probes of it – of where the real looks lost and where it erupts again.

A divide opens in the show as one moves through it. Is its principal concern the photo-painting relation or the representation of modern life? Some works lean to one side, others to the other, but only the best hold the two subjects together, and they are able to do so precisely because the photographic and the painterly charge each other, and burn the image into its moment (and vice versa). Often in the more recent paintings this tension slackens, and purchase on the world slips as a result (the loose categories – looser than in Baudelaire – don’t help much here: ‘History & Politics’, ‘Leisure & Everyday Life’ etc). Sometimes, too, even as the category of the photographic expands, the use of the photographic contracts; it becomes more traditional, mostly a matter of sources again, with the result that little pressure is put on painting, which in turn can scarcely push back on photography. How different from Warhol, who places nasty news photos in the space of exalted abstraction, or Hamilton, who tests the great tradition of the tableau with the slick devices of advertisements. In short, many of the younger artists allow painting to trump photography too easily. Painting gets the victory, but it is Pyrrhic, and for all its advocacy the show might make some viewers feel less sanguine, not more, about the current state of the art.

The reason this issue is more than academic is that the representation of social existence is at stake here. If, for Baudelaire and company, modernity was a great fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrific myth to interrogate – and how much more so is it for us today. As art historians such as T.J. Clark and Thomas Crow have helped us to see, the great painters of modern life – from Manet to Hamilton – are also its great dialecticians; they are able to celebrate and interrogate it by turns. Hamilton uses the Duchampian phrase ‘ironism of affirmation’ to convey his edgy position on this score. Too many of the artists in this show are neither affirmative nor critical enough – of painting, photography, electronic images or modern life. In 1865 Baudelaire wrote to Manet that he was the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art; it was meant as a compliment.

Letters

Vol. 29 No. 23 · 29 November 2007

Hal Foster’s review of The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery is illustrated with a reproduction of a painting by Liu Xiaodong bearing the title A Transsexual Getting Downstairs (LRB, 1 November). Without knowing anything about Chinese, I suspect a better translation would be Transsexual Descending a Staircase: the subject matter and the colour scheme (if not the figuration) suggest an explicit allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s work which has always been known in English as Nude Descending a Staircase.

Benjamin Friedman
New York

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New Left Review 19, January-February 2003

If Britain rather than the US, in the fifties rather than the sixties, originated Pop Art, what ingredients made it possible, and how did its pre-eminent painter Richard Hamilton tabulate the arrival of a new ‘super-fetishism’?

HAL FOSTER

ON THE FIRST POP AGE

An epic poem of early Pop by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, in an essay published in November 1956, three months after the landmark Independent Group exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ opens at the Whitechapel Gallery: ‘Gropius wrote a book on grain silos, Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes, and Charlotte Perriand brought a new object to the office every morning; but today we collect ads.’ Forget that Gropius, Corbusier and Perriand were also media-savvy; the point is polemical: they, the protagonists of modernist design, were cued by functional structures, vehicles, things, but we, the celebrants of Pop culture, look to ‘the throw-away object and the pop-package’ for our models. This is done partly in delight, the Smithsons suggest, and partly in desperation: ‘Today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts—advertising . . . We must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.’ [1] Others in the IG, Reyner Banham and Richard Hamilton above all, share this urgency.

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Who are the prophets of this epic shift? The first we to ‘collect ads’ is Eduardo Paolozzi, who calls the collages made from his collection ‘Bunk’ (an ambivalent homage to Henry Ford?). Although this ‘pinboard aesthetic’ is also practised by Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and John McHale, it is Paolozzi who, one night in April 1952, projects his ads, magazine clippings, postcards and diagrams at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in a demonstration that underwrites the distinctive method of the IG, an anti-hierarchical juxtaposition of archival images disparate, connected, or both at once. The ‘Bunk’ idea is developed in such shows as ‘Parallel of Life and Art’, directed by Paolozzi, the Smithsons and Henderson in 1953, ‘Man, Machine and Motion’, produced by Hamilton in 1955, and ‘This is Tomorrow’, which grouped artists, architects and designers in twelve teams in 1956; it is also elaborated in such practices as the ‘tabular image’ of Hamilton, as I will discuss.

Click here to open a larger version of this picture in a new window

If Paolozzi suggests an aesthetic paradigm that is at once collagist and curatorial, it is Banham, the great animateur of the IG, who provides the theoretical arguments for a Pop Age. ‘We have already entered the Second Machine Age,’ he writes in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), ‘and can look back on the First as a period of the past.’ [2] In this dissertation, conceived in the midst of the IG, Banham exploits his distance, both historical and ideological, from the framers of modern architecture (including his advisor Nikolaus Pevsner) in order to redefine its meaning. He challenges the functionalist and rationalist biases of Gropius and Corbusier, Giedion and Pevsner—that form follow function and technique—and recovers the Expressionist and Futurist imperatives of modern architecture that they neglected. In so doing Banham also advances the imaging of technology as the principal criterion for design—for design of the Second Machine Age, or the First Pop Age, as well.

Might we operate a similar parallax today, and do onto Banham, Hamilton and colleagues what they did onto the modernists? That is, if the IG detected a shift in conditions from the Machine Age, might we trace a similar displacement vis-à-vis the Pop moment? As we frame our questions of Pop—concerning the phenomenology of the screened image, the formation of the subject in a mediated world, the representability of technologies that often appear immaterial—might we also refine our questions about art, architecture and design today? No doubt if we pursue this line of inquiry, related mistakes in self-understanding will be made: if the Pop moment showed the Machine Age to be charmed by an instrumental reason, and we see the Pop moment as taken over by a media euphoria, what might our dominant ideology be revealed to be? Or are we still too suspicious of all such epic poems, all such period fictions, to permit these questions in the first place? (Obviously I am not; I think we default on cultural narratives at great cost—one counted in, among other ways, the slack relativism of much contemporary art and the indifferent thematicism of much exhibition practice.) [3]

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If Banham is to be our model of revisionism, we need to know more about his project. First and foremost, he is committed to modern architecture, but again not to the canon of Gropius, Corbusier and Mies laid down by Pevsner, Giedion, Hitchcock and others. Banham challenges this edited version of modernism, however, according to its own criterion of how best to express the Machine Age (he too scorns all historical revivalism, including, later, the postmodern version). According to Banham, Gropius and company imitate only the superficial image of the machine, not its energistic principles: they mistake the simple forms and smooth surfaces of the machine for the dynamic operation of technology. This vision is too ‘selective’; it is also too orderly—a ‘classical’ aesthetic dressed up in the guise of the machine. Corbusier all but confesses this classicism-through-the-machine when he juxtaposes a 1921 Delage sports car with the Parthenon in his Vers une architecture (1923). For Banham this is absurd: cars are Futurist ‘vehicles of desire’, not Platonic type-objects, and only a subject who thrills to the machine as ‘a source of personal fulfilment and gratification’ can embody its spirit. [4]

In this regard Banham the Pop prophet is not so at odds with Banham the revisionary modernist. Like others in the IG, he is raised on the popular culture of American comics and movies before the war; this is what ‘Pop’ means after the war as well, not folk in the old sense or Pop in the current sense: the former no longer exists for them, the latter does not yet exist for anyone. The IG is near enough to this American culture to know it well, but far away enough to desire it still, especially in an austere Britain short on attractive alternatives (the lofty civilization of Kenneth Clark, the mealy modernism of Herbert Read, the worker folk world of Richard Hoggart). The result is that the IG doesn’t question this culture much: hence the apparent paradox of a group that is pro-Left and pro-American at once. At this time a second, consumerist Americanism supplants the first, Fordist Americanism that swept through Europe in the 1920s—an Americanism of imagistic impact, sexy packaging, speedy turnover. These become the design criteria of the Pop Age for Banham, and they lead him to celebrate the ‘plug-in’ architecture of Cedric Price and Archigram in the 1960s.

His revision of modern architecture is thus not only academic; it is also a way to reclaim an ‘aesthetic of expendability’, first proposed in Futurism, for the Pop Age, where ‘standards hitched to permanency’ are no longer relevant. [5] In this experiment Banham has two laboratories: the IG, both its discussions and its exhibitions, and his prolific essays where he applies to commercial products the iconographic methods that he learns for high culture at the Courtauld Institute. More than any other figure, Banham leads design theory away from a modernist concern with abstract forms to a Pop semiotics of cultural images, in a way that follows the shift from the architect as arbiter of machine production to the stylist as instigator of consumerist desire. ‘The foundation stone of the previous intellectual structure of Design Theory has crumbled,’ Banham writes in 1961, ‘there is no longer universal acceptance of Architecture as the universal analogy of design.’ [6] In this scheme the Book doesn’t kill Architecture; the chrome fender and the plastic gizmo do. In different ways the Smithsons and Price and Archigram take ‘the measure of this intervention’ in architecture; Hamilton does the same in painting.

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Hamilton shares many of the Pop-Futurist enthusiasms of Banham. He too sees the machine as exemplary by dint not of its functional ‘fitness’ but of its fantasmatic power, its mythic force. In his introduction to ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ of 1955, a gridded display of over 200 images of mechanomorphs under sea, on land, in the sky and in outer space, Hamilton even recycles the old Marinetti trope of a man-machine ‘centaur’ from the first Manifesto of Futurism. [7] Yet his archive of images is largely obsolete, his mechanical centaurs are almost campy, and this cannot but render the techno-futurism on offer here somewhat absurd. Never as ‘gonzo’ as Banham, Hamilton practises an ‘ironism of affirmation’ toward Pop culture (he borrows the phrase from his mentor Duchamp) or, in his own words, a ‘peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism’. [8]

In ‘This is Tomorrow’ of 1956 Hamilton is grouped with John Voelcker and John McHale, and ‘ironism of affirmation’ is again in play. His team decides that new kinds of ‘imagery and perception’ require new strategies of representation, and Hamilton constructs his little collage,Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, to the first end—to tabulate the emergent Pop iconography of ‘Man, Woman, Humanity, History, Food, Newspapers, Cinema, TV, Telephone, Comics (picture information), Words (textual information), Tape recording (aural information), Cars, Domestic appliances, Space.’ Although indebted to Paolozzi’s ‘Bunk’, Just what is it? initiates his distinctive version of the Pop image, a space of pumped or primped figures, commodity images and media emblems that, in his own description, is ‘tabular as well as pictorial’. [9]

Two months later, in a January 1957 letter to the Smithsons, Hamilton sums up IG research to date: ‘technological imagery’ (explored in ‘Man, Machine and Motion’), ‘automobile styling’ (discussed by Banham), ‘ad images’ (credited to Paolozzi, McHale and the Smithsons), ‘Pop attitudes in industrial design’ (exemplified by the House of the Future of the Smithsons), and ‘the Pop Art/Technology background’ (the entire IG, ‘This is Tomorrow’). [10] These interests will inform his tabular pictures to come, in particular a suite of three, Hommage à Chrysler Corp.(1957), Hers is a lush situation (1958), and $he (1958–61). I want to review them briefly now—to come to terms with this type of picture and to speculate about some of its implications.

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Hommage à Chrysler Corp. begins his intrigue with the automobile as core commodity and design-object of the 20th century (that is, until the PC), and for Hamilton it is more metamorphic ‘vehicle of desire’ à la Banham than Platonic type-object à la Corbusier. ‘It adopts its symbols from many fields and contributes to the stylistic language of all consumer goods’, he writes in 1962. ‘It is presented to us by the ad-man in a rounded picture of urban living: a dream world, but the dream is deep and true—the collective desire of a culture translated into an image of fulfilment. Can it be assimilated into the fine art consciousness?’ [11] Hommage is his first attempt to meet this IG mandate, and here his ironism of affirmation is not paradoxical, for Hamilton is so affirmative of automobile imaging at mid-century, so mimetic of its moves, that he is led to ironize its fetishistic logic: that is, to expose the break-up of each body on display—the new Chrysler in the foreground and the vestigial showgirl behind it—into sexy details whose production is obscure. Not only does Hamilton associate the body parts of each by analogy (the breast, say, with the headlight), but in so doing he demonstrates a conflation of commodity fetishism with sexual fetishism, as the two bodies exchange properties, even parts (à la Marx) in a way that invests them with erotic force (à la Freud). Perhaps this conflation of fetishisms is historically new to this moment: though foreseen in Surrealism, it is only foregrounded in Pop, which acts out this super-fetishism in ways that are excessive but demonstrative.

Signal characteristics of the tabular picture are already apparent in Hommage. First, the composition is, in his own words, ‘a compilation of themes derived from the glossies’—several images for the car, the woman, and the showroom each. [12] Fragmented, the body of the car is also rotated for display (this happens to female figures in other pictures like $he, as if the skill of Old Master drawing had become a technique of semi-pornographic surveying). I read the headlight and bumper as the front, the fin and fender as the rear. Fetishistically specific (like Banham, Hamilton is a detail buff: ‘pieces are taken from Chrysler’s Plymouth and Imperial ads; there is some General Motors material and a bit of Pontiac’), these parts are also smoothened into near abstraction: if the woman caresses the car in the painting, so too does Hamilton caress its image in paint. The woman is also reduced to charged parts within a curvaceous outline, to breast and lips, which Freud counted among ‘the secondary sexual characteristics’—here represented by an ‘Exquisite Form Bra’ and the pout of one ‘Volupta’, a star of a late-night American TV show of the time. This is representation as fetishization, an almost campy version of what Benjamin called ‘the sex appeal of the inorganic’. [13] Such is the fetishistic chiasmus of this tabulation—a car is (like) a female body, a body is (like) a car—and the two commingle in this chiasmus as if naturally. (This is also borne out by the sexist lingo of the day: ‘nice chassis’, ‘great headlights’, and so on.)

Everything here is already mediated for display: ‘The main motif, the vehicle, breaks down into an anthology of presentation techniques’, Hamilton tells us, and he does highlight in paint the print versions of glossy colour and shiny chrome, all previously screened by the lens, as if there were no other mode of appearance. Space is also thus transformed: it has become display-space tout court, here a showroom based on ‘the International Style represented by a token suggestion of Mondrian and Saarinen’. [14] Foucault remarks that with Manet the art museum becomes the frame of painting, and Benjamin that its primary value becomes exhibition value; with Hamilton this frame is more purely one of exhibition—the showroom—and exhibition value is pushed toward consumption value. [15]

Hamilton also speaks elliptically of ‘a quotation from Marcel Duchamp’, whose Green Box of notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass, 1915–23) already obsesses him at the time of Hommage (he publishes his typographic translation of the Green Box in 1960). Perhaps he has in mind another note that speaks of ‘the interrogation of the shop window’ and ‘the coition through the glass pane’. [16] If so, this interrogation is now the enticement of the showroom where not only have traditional line, colour and modeling become means of product display, but aspects of modernist art and architecture—‘Mondrian and Saarinen’, diagrammatic signs and geometric bands—have also become devices of commercial exhibition. (This is another distinctive insight of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who shows us modernism mediated through comics.) Or perhaps the allusion to Duchamp is more general—that, like the Large Glass, this conjunction of Chrysler and showgirl is a kind of Bachelor Machine. But which is the bachelor and which the bride? Unlike Duchamp, Hamilton lets the two meet; the shop window is dissolved, desire is transformed.

5

In his next tabular picture, Hers is a lush situation (1958), Hamilton pushes the association of body parts of car and woman beyond formal analogy to actual commingling: the lines of bumper, headlight, fin, windshield, and wheel become one with the curves of the implicit driver. Another tabulation of images from the glossies, the painting is generated from a line in anIndustrial Design review of a recent Buick: ‘The driver sits at the dead calm center of all this motion: hers is a lush situation’. [17] Perhaps this is the next stage in his Pop evolution of the Bachelor Machine, one that brings Hamilton into the Bataillean orbit of Hans Bellmer: Hers is a lush situation as a graphic updating of Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace (1937), where Bellmer renders woman and weapon one. But what is still perverse, even obscene in Bellmer has become somehow normative, almost beautiful here: a lush situation, not a surreal threat. Although Hamilton worked to assimilate design into ‘fine art consciousness’, here the flow is in the opposite direction, and it is far along: the genre of the Odalisque is subsumed in an ad for a Buick (all that remains of the nude, as with the Cheshire cat, is her smile); or, better, a De Kooning drawing is not erased by Rauschenberg but reworked by an automobile stylist. In the process, line, which is still individual and expressive in De Kooning, a medium of contact between artist and model (or nature), appears for all its lushness almost engineered and statistical: ‘line’ becomes ‘the right line’ for ‘the new line’ of Buick—a suturing device between ad-man and consumer. And if line is revalued here, so is plasticity, in a way that makes animation and reification difficult to distinguish. This old Futurist dream, which first came true in fascist culture, comes true again, in a different way, in consumerist culture. ‘More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation’, Barthes writes in Mythologiesjust a year or two before Hers is a lush situation is painted—‘the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself . . .’ [18]

6

‘Sex is everywhere,’ Hamilton writes in 1962, ‘symbolized in the glamour of mass-produced luxury—the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal’. [19] This erotic plasticity is not only fetishistic, a matter of charged details, but also sublimatory, a matter of abstractive displacements—it is as if Hamilton tracks the desirous eye in its saccadic jumps across associated forms. Together these two operations, fetishistic detailing and sublimatory sliding, inform the hybrid space of his tabular pictures—at once specific and sketchy in content, broken and seamless in facture, collagist and painterly in medium.

This combination is also at work in $he (1958–61), his tabular summa, which Hamilton describes as another ‘sieved reflection of the ad-man’s paraphrase of the consumer’s dream’. [20] If the magazine image of a Chrysler provides the layout of Hommage, here it is a shot of a Frigidaire—apparently there is no end of the showroom, not even (especially not) at home. Hamilton lists no less than ten sources, all credited to particular designers and brands, for the fridge, the woman, and the hybrid of toaster and vacuum cleaner below: like Banham he is a mad iconographer of Pop representations of everyday life—that is, in this case, of domestic work. Like Hommage, $he exploits the advertising genre of the woman-wife caressing the vehicle-appliance, yet here it is the commodity that seems to offer the human for sale (this is also signalled by the dollar-sign in the title). Once more the woman is reduced to an erotic ‘essence’, not breast and lips as in Hommage, but eye and hips. As in Hers is a lush situation, the hips are in whitened relief, while the eye is a plastic one taped into position: like painting, relief and collage are exploited for fetishistic effect, not the opposite. The eye opens and closes like the fridge, turns on and off like the toaster. Apparently in the Pop world of animated things it is not only sardine cans that look back at us; and far from a threat as in Lacan, this gaze is a winking come-on. [21]

7

Maybe now I can spell out, however telegraphically, a few implications of the tabular picture. To start with the word (Hamilton is as particular about terms as he is about images), ‘tabular’ derives from tabula, Latin for table, but also for writing-tablet, in which, in ancient use, both painting and printing figure as modes of inscription. Surely this association appeals to Hamilton, who uses both techniques in his own practice in large part because he finds them, already so imbricated, in the media. ‘Tabular’ also invokes writing, which Hamilton involves through his generative lists and descriptive titles; moreover, his pictures register the traces of the visual-verbal hybrid characteristic of the magazine spread or the tabloid layout (perhaps ‘tabular’ connotes ‘tabloid’ as well), a hybrid that anticipates the visual-verbal sign (call it a bit or a bite) that dominates electronic media space today, an often lush image that carries an often insistent directive (‘click here’, ‘buy this’, ‘don’t worry be happy’). [22]

Again, some of his pictures are tabular in another sense: generated by a table of terms, as withJust what is it?; or of images, as in Hommage and $he; or of journalistic jingles, as in Hers is a lush situation or Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in men’s wear and accessories (1962–3; the title derives from a Playboy review of male fashion). More directly, ‘to tabulate’ is ‘to set down in a systematic form’, and Hamilton is often concerned, as he says, with an ‘overlapping of presentation styles and methods’: styles and methods that are commercial (as in the various display techniques that he evokes); modernist (as in the various abstract signs that he cites); and modernist-turned-commercial. (The last is most suggestive: Pop receives the ‘reconciliation’ of avant-garde and mass as given.) In his own words, ‘photograph becomes diagram, diagram flows into text’, and all is transformed by painting. At the same time he wants ‘the plastic entities [to] retain their identity as tokens’, and so uses ‘different plastic dialects’, such as photography, relief, collage, ‘within the unified whole’ of painting. [23] Like an ad-man, then, Hamilton tabulates—as in correlates—different media and messages, and tabulates—as in calculates—this correlation in terms of visual appeal and psychological effect.

In Pop it is not often clear when this redoubling is analytical and when it is charmed; this is especially so in Hamilton. Yet one thing seems clear enough: his pastiche (which is not a negative term for him) is not disruptively random, as it is, say, in many collages of Berlin Dada. Another insight of Pop—or ‘Son of Dada’ as Hamilton calls it—is that ‘randomizing’ has become a feature of the media, print and otherwise; a logic within the repertoire of the culture industry.[24] Sometimes he pushes this logic of the random to a demonstrative extreme. At other times his tabular pictures are logical in another sense, that is, almost typological, as in the suite of images Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends . . . Hamilton describes them as a ‘preliminary investigation into specific concepts of masculinity’, here typified by President Kennedy, a Wall Street broker cum football player, a weightlifter cum track athlete, and astronaut John Glenn, each shown wired to a particular mechanism of sport, entertainment or media—that is, to a spectacle-device. [25] Perhaps more than any of his images, these recall the mediated collages of Rauschenberg; yet the tabular picture should not be confused with the ‘flat-bed picture plane’ of his American contemporary (as Leo Steinberg named it in ‘Other Criteria’). [26] Both are ‘horizontal’ operations, it is true, maybe in the practical sense of how they are assembled in the studio, sometimes tabulated on the floor, certainly in the cultural sense that they both scan across ‘the fine/pop art continuum’. [27] Nevertheless, as Hamilton states as early as Just what is it?, the tabular image is also pictorial: for all its horizontal tabulation of semi-found images, it remains a vertical picture of a semi-illusionistic space—even though this orientation is associated with the magazine layout or the media screen as much as the painting rectangle; Benjamin once called it ‘the dictatorial perpendicular’. [28] The tabular picture is also iconographic in a way that Rauschenberg is not (despite the attempts of art historians to track his sources as if he were Hieronymus Bosch); and in keeping with the IG, let alone the design industry, it is also communicative, almost pedagogical—again as Rauschenberg is not. The tabular picture is also more a research model than an ‘anomic archive’ as suggested with regard to Gerhard Richter. [29] There is no American or European equivalent that I know.

8

In the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin once remarked, ‘literacy’ must include the decoding of captioned photographs. [30] Additionally in the Pop age, Hamilton suggests, it must entail a deconstructing of the mediated image-word bite that hails us from magazines, billboards, television, and now computers too. This ‘literacy’ is fundamental to postwar self-fashioning, which has to do far less with any canon of art and literature than with a host of media-apparitions and commodity-signs. (The recent Canon Wars in the academy obscured the fact that the primary canon today consists of television shows, blockbuster movies, sports trivia, celebrity gossip.) Suggestively, the word ‘tabular’ refers not only to graphic inscription; in ancient use it also connotes ‘a body of laws inscribed on a tablet’. Might these tabular pictures be construed as pedagogical investigations of a ‘new body of laws’, a new subjective inscription, a new symbolic order, of Pop society?

Hamilton is self-aware about the preconditions of this new order (if that is what it is). As an artist he is committed to nature, but knows that it is ‘second-hand’: ‘In the 50s we became aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us; a synthetic, “instant” view. Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers immersed the artist in a total environment and this new visual ambience was photographic’. He is also committed to the figure—his Collected Words ends with this statement: ‘I have never made a painting which does not show an intense awareness of the human figure’—but knows that it too is transformed, not only rearticulated by machines and confused with commodities (this is not news) but also now designed-and-redesigned as an image-product. [31]

Consumer society, Hamilton writes in ‘Persuading Image’, a paper first delivered in 1959, depends on the manufacturing of desire through design, on an artificial, accelerated obsolescence of image, form and style. In the process (which he assumes, not critically but also not moralistically) the consumer is also ‘manufactured’, designed to the product. ‘Is it me?’, he remarks of the commodities in $he, miming the ad-man miming the buyer: ‘the appliance is “designed with you in mind”’. [32] It is this condition that his tabular pictures work over: not only the fetishistic conflation of different objects and aims, but also the interpellation of the subject in the image, as an image. Today this process has become internal to the subject, who serves as designer and designed in one, a kind of servomechanism of consummated consumption. When Hamilton turns to his version of the great Pop icon in My Marilyn (1965), he adapts, in painting, a negative sheet from a photo shoot with her own editorial marks: which images to cut (she is merciless), where to crop—in short, how to look, to appear, to be. His Marilyn is still a star, but less as an erotic object than as a model designer, as the master artist of her own powerful iconicity. How different, perhaps more pointed, than the anxiety of a de Kooning or the thraldom of a Warhol. [33]

9

Just as the product is in excess of function, Hamilton suggests in ‘Persuading Image’, so demand is in excess of need. In effect he sketches a consumerist formula of Demand minus Need equals Desire that is not too distant from the formula of desire that Lacan also develops in the 1950s.[34] Lacanians will scorn this speculation, but might his definition of desire be historically grounded as well, a theory of desire inflected by consumerism? Certainly the tabular pictures seem to share the Lacanian sense of desire as a metonymic slippage, at once fetishistic and sublimatory, from image to image, a refinding of the same object in ever new guises. Again, they seem to (re)trace the saccadic jumps of the scopophilic subject.

Thus the tabular picture not only anthologizes ‘presentation techniques’, it also mimes the distracted attention of the desirous viewer-consumer. In this light its painterly subsumption of photography, relief and collage seems warranted not regressive—regressive, say, in relation to a transgressive standard of Dada (about which Hamilton is sceptical in any case, especially when it comes to readings of Duchamp). Again, he assumes the fetishistic effects of painting (condemned long ago by the Russian Constructivists), not to mention of other devices, both modernist (relief and collage) and commercial (the magazine layout). He recognizes that all these forms are now reworked in the image of a general fetishism (commodity, sexual and semiotic), and he moves to exploit this new order—which is one of semblance as well as of exchange—and, in so doing, sometimes to deconstruct it too. [35] Painting allows for the requisite mixing not only of charged details with blended anatomies, but also of the optical jumpiness of the subject with the erotic smoothness of the object; it is this unresolved combination that makes his early paintings both pull apart and hold together.

How does this effect jibe with traditional painting; that is, how does the tabular relate to the tableau? ‘In the mainstream of Western painting (since the Greeks, anyway),’ Hamilton writes in 1970, ‘it has been taken for granted that a painting is to be experienced as a totality seen and understood all at once before its components are examined’. ‘Some twentieth-century artists questioned this premise’, he adds, with the heteroglossic pictures of Klee and the proto-tabularLarge Glass of Duchamp in mind. [36] Clearly Hamilton is affined with this minor line. Yet by his own time the dominant line of the tableau—which runs perhaps from the Greeks, as he says, but certainly from Renaissance perspective through the neoclassical tableau to modernist painting as defined by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried; that is, painting ‘as a totality seen and understood all at once’—has crossed with his own genealogy. The tableau and the tabular can no longer be held apart as distinctive forms. In ‘Other Criteria’ Steinberg argues that, for all its claim to autonomy, late-modernist abstraction (e.g., the stripe paintings of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella) appears driven by a logic of design, in fact by the very logic of Detroit styling so admired by Banham and Hamilton: imagistic impact, fast lines, speedy turnover. In other words, he suggests that an ironic identity is forged, under the historical pressure of consumer society, between modernist painting and its other, whether this other is called ‘kitsch’ (Greenberg), ‘theatricality’ (Fried), or ‘design’.

In this regard what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a ‘strictly optical’ space of pure painting, Hamilton pictures as a strictly scopophilic space of pure design; and what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a modernist subject, fully autonomous and ‘morally alert’, Hamilton projects as its apparent opposite, a fetishistic subject openly desirous. [37] This is another Pop insight that Hamilton shares with Lichtenstein in particular: that today, in both compositional order and subjective effect, there is often no great difference between a good comic or ad and a grand painting. Importantly, however, this demonstration of the decay of a totality unique to painting is made within painting (perhaps only there is it fully articulate). Paradoxically, then, this demonstration sustains painting even as it shows painting to be deconstructed, within and without, by historical forces. In 1865 Baudelaire writes to Manet, in an ambiguous compliment, that he is the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art. [38] Over one hundred years later (and counting) Hamilton carries this fine tradition of popular decrepitude along.


[1] Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘But Today We Collect Ads’, Ark, no. 18, November 1956. On modern architecture and mass media see Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Cambridge, MA 1994. This paper was written for a conference at Princeton University, ‘Art, Architecture, and Film in the First Pop Age’, 16 November 2002, and appears here as given then. It is also an hommage to Richard Hamilton on the occasion of his retrospective in Barcelona and Cologne.

[2] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London 1960, p. 11.

[3] See Franco Moretti, ‘MoMA 2000: The Capitulation’, NLR 4, July–August 2000.

[4] Reyner Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’, Art, no. 1, 1 September 1955, p. 3. Also see Nigel Whiteley,Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Cambridge, MA 2002.

[5] Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’.

[6] Banham, ‘Design by Choice’, The Architectural Review 130, July 1961, p. 44. Whiteley is again instructive on this point.

[7] Richard Hamilton, Collected Words 1953–82, London 1982, p. 19; hereafter abbreviated cw. The Hamilton literature is large and various; I have benefited most from the texts in the 1992 Tate Gallery catalogue and in the special issue of October 94, devoted to the Independent Group, especially Julian Myers, ‘The Future as Fetish’, and William R. Kaizen, ‘Richard Hamilton’s Tabular Image’.

[8] CW, p. 78.

[9] CW, p. 24.

[10] CW, p. 28.

[11] CW, p. 35.

[12] CW, p. 31.

[13] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’ (1935), in The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA 1999, p. 8.

[14] CW, p. 32.

[15] Michel Foucault, ‘Fantasia of the Library’ (1967), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca 1977, p. 92. Benjamin writes of ‘exhibition value’, of course, in the Artwork Essay, and alludes to ‘consumption value’ in other notes.

[16] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London 1975, p. 74. ‘When one undergoes the examination of the shop window, one also pronounces one’s own sentence. In fact, one’s choice is “round trip” . . . No obstinacy, ad absurdum, of hiding the coition through a glass pane with one or many objects of the shop window. The penalty consists in cutting the pane and in feeling regret as soon as possession is consummated. QED.’

[17] CW, p. 32.

[18] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), New York 1972, p. 99.

[19] CW, p. 36.

[20] CW, p. 36.

[21] I refer to the famous anecdote in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973), New York 1981.

[22] See T. J. Clark, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam’, October 100, Winter 2002. Early on Hamilton calls this hybrid ‘a poster’: CW, p. 104.

[23] CW, p. 38.

[24] As William Turnbull recalls in 1983: ‘Magazines were an incredible way of randomizing one’s thinking (one thing the Independent Group was interested in was breaking down logical thinking)—food on one page, pyramids in the desert on the next, a good-looking girl on the next; they were like collages’; in David Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, Cambridge, MA 1989, p. 21.

[25] CW, p. 46.

[26] Included in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972. In this shift to the horizontal site of cultural images Steinberg saw a break with traditional paradigms of the window and the mirror as well as the modernist model of the abstract surface, all oriented to the vertical and still associated with the natural—a break that he termed ‘postmodernist’.

[27] This is a term advanced by Lawrence Alloway in ‘The Long Front of Culture’, Cambridge Opinion, no. 17, 1959, and adopted by Hamilton.

[28] See Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’ (1928), in Selected Writings Volume 1, Cambridge, MA 1996, p. 456. Benjamin writes here of script: ‘If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.’ I recall this term here to complicate the overvaluation, in much contemporary art and criticism, of the horizontal and the base—as if they could somehow overwhelm the dictatorial perpendicular on their own.

[29] See Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’, October 88, Spring 1999.

[30] See Walter Benjamin, ‘A Little History of Photography’ (1931), in Selected Writings Volume 2, Cambridge, MA 1999.

[31] CW, pp. 64, 269.

[32] CW, p. 36.

[33] On this iconicity see my ‘Death in America’, in Annette Michelson, ed., Warhol, Cambridge, MA 2001; and on consumerist interpellation see my Design and Crime (and other diatribes), London 2002.

[34] See, for example, ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud’ (1957), in Ecrits, New York 1977.

[35] On semiotic fetishism see Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis 1973.

[36] CW, p. 104.

[37] See especially Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella’ (1965), in Art and Objecthood, Chicago 1998.

[38] Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance, Paris 1973, vol. 2, p. 497.

 

Sigmar Polke’s Mad Alchemy – Reviews of the MoMA and Tate Modern retrospectives

Photo: AKG Images/Brigitte Hellgoth
ARTJUNE 12, 2014
The Art World Has Stopped Distinguishing Between Greatness and Fraudulence
And it’s costing us
By Jed Perl

If there were any art fever, or any intellectual fever, left in New York City, I am certain that “Alibis: Sigmar Polke: 1963–2010,” the immense retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art, would be receiving a thunderously complicated response. Polke specializes in the glamour of bewilderment, a confusion provoked by work that ranges from anemic and presumably ironic little doodles to wildly voluptuous canvases created with pours and washes of synthetic resin, mixed with pigments, silver bromide, and sundry other exotic materials. If you respond to the fascinations of slacker chic, then Polke is for you. This artist, who died in 2010 at the age of 69, is a cross between a slob-provocateur and a brutish aesthete. His outlier art-star style is just right for a moment when everybody is tired of art stars but most people have no idea where else to turn.

Compared with Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, the two other postwar German painters with enormous international reputations, Polke remains, despite his many appearances in the United States (including a drawing show at MoMA in 1999), something of an artist’s artist. His influence is now at flood tide, the mingling of gadabout hedonism and ostentatious disaffection in paintings, drawings, assemblages, photographs, and films echoed in countless little gallery shows on the ultra-hip Lower East Side. There is a princely arrogance in Polke’s down-and-dirty games, a sporadic visual avidity that complicates the self-congratulatory anomie. When he layers painted images on cheap printed textiles, the results, although ultimately little more than artsy attitudinizing, can seduce the eye. And when Polke borrows calligraphic devices from Dürer and allows them to hover over expanses of smoke-gray paint, he engineers something that at least echoes the elegant effects of the best of Cy Twombly. I find myself succumbing to the seductions of Polke’s tastiest visual play without really feeling moved. He is an egomanical seducer—an artistic Lothario.

The Polke retrospective is an event, no question about it. What I fear is that it is going to come and go without inspiring the heated debate that it deserves. In terms of exhibition space, the Museum of Modern Art and Kathy Halbreich, the curator in charge, have been extraordinarily generous; the show sprawls through much of the museum’s second floor. There are some 250 works, ranging from the comic neurasthenia of early Polke, when this man who had been born in Silesia was coming of age in Düsseldorf, through the layered paintings on printed fabrics from his drug-taking period in the 1970s and the more conventionally eye-filling paintings of the 1980s and 1990s. There are plenty of drawings, sketchbooks, assemblages, photographs, and films. The show even has audio elements, collages of live and recorded music, sounds from radio and television, and voices of friends, much of this material collected by Polke in the 1970s.

What is missing at MoMA—the absence is felt intensely in Halbreich’s catalogue text—is the intellectual firepower that used to turn MoMA shows into megawatt debates. In place of the brainy, rambunctious advocacy, however wrongheaded, that William Rubin brought to Frank Stella in the 1980s and Robert Storr brought to Gerhard Richter in 2002, Halbreich’s essay opens with the confession that the work “often confuses me” and “sometimes scares me.” I can feel her backing away from the bulldozer event she has organized, and the effect of the catalogue, with well over a dozen essays by different writers, suggests a collective hedging of bets.

In place of artistic judgments, we now have sociological observations. The contributors to the Polke catalogue gnaw on the history of twentieth-century Germany as if it were an old bone. And if this institutional pedantry were not troubling enough, it is echoed in the bland adulation and downed energies of the critical establishment, where shrinking word counts have left reviewers with little opportunity to do much more than go thumbs up or thumbs down—and online sensibilities all too often demand little more. The result is that a show that should have people arguing in the galleries and continuing those arguments over coffee, drinks, and dinner has all the force of a rapidly deflating balloon.

Among the critics, art stars on the order of Polke have become anthills to be bolstered and fortified, but without any particular enthusiasm. Even kudos are awarded with a certain weary caution. What is now all the rage is the romance of the outsider and the outlier; each critic, curator, and collector has his or her own special pets. Of course we all know what fuels this new attitude, given the ridiculous over-inflation purveyed by mega-galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth, the wall-to-wall marketing marathon of the art fairs, and the seven- and eight-figure prices for some contemporary art. What is so troubling about this critical quasi-Quakerism, with its prayerful consideration of the little guy or gal and its ineffectual moral outrage, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of taste, quality, or artistic judgment as applied to specific works of art.

After going along with the Pop-ification of culture that produced the current crop of creative and institutional Goliaths, the arts community has decided to side with the Davids. The trouble is that by now everybody is so entrenched in their Pop sensibilities that they are incapable of distinguishing between the acres of bombast and the flashes of poetry in the work of a Sigmar Polke or a Matthew Barney—or for that matter in any of the little people they are so eager to endorse. Not long ago I was fascinated by the paltry response to the premiere of Barney’s enormous new movie extravaganza, River of Fundament, which has passages of considerable beauty but was dismissed almost before anybody had seen it as nothing but another case of art-star swagger. And of course the Museum of Modern Art currently finds itself playing Goliath to the American Folk Art Museum’s David, with MoMA, despite widespread protests, determined to tear down the sliver of a building put up a decade ago by the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street and purchased by MoMA when the smaller institution nearly went bankrupt. While I agree with most observers that MoMA ought to have found a way to save the American Folk Art Museum’s admittedly quirky former home, the fact that the structure by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is a very bad piece of architecture seems to get lost in the paroxysms of small-is-beautiful self-righteousness.

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Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sigmar Polke, Watchtower, 1984

Behind the altogether human fascination with power games that turns the visual arts into journalistic cotton candy, ancient debates still percolate and shape what we are seeing and what we understand. In the arts, as in geopolitics, there is no end to history despite all the talk we have heard about the end of history. Sigmar Polke takes us right back to debates that raged in the last third of the nineteenth century and lingered well into the twentieth century, between the avant-garde and the artists whom they mockingly labeled the pompiers—literally, firefighters. Pompier (used either as a noun or an adjective) became an avant-garde term of derision for the slick tricks of painters who were the popular hits in the nineteenth century’s enormous public exhibitions. I found myself thinking about the pompiers as I sat in a large room toward the end of MoMA’s Polke show, where the compositions, many with a motif of a watchtower (which strongly suggests the Holocaust and the camps), have a perfervid-chic look, with cloudbanks of purplish pigment and showers of glinting silver. In the Larousse, pompier is said to have characterized work that was “over-emphatic” and “pretentious.” What better way to describe Sigmar Polke? So now—in a sort of reversal of fortune gleefully predicted half a century ago by none other than Salvador Dalí—Sigmar Polke, though championed as an inheritor of the avant-garde strategies of the Dadaists and the Abstract Expressionists, turns out to be the new pompier.

The origins of the term pompier remain unclear, although the most popular theory focuses on a resemblance that avant-garde artists saw between the helmets worn by classical heroes in the work of academic painters and the helmets firefighters wore. But the artists who specialized in Greco-Roman history were not the only ones who came to be regarded as pompiers. The term was applied to Bouguereau’s seductive recapitulations of Raphael Madonnas and to the photographic realism of Gérôme, Detaille, and Meissonier. It is certainly not irrelevant that pompier brings to mind pompeux, or pompous. The thing about the pompiers was that however knowledgeable and skilled they were—and many were close students not only of the art of the past but also of the art of their own day—to avant-garde eyes, their effects remained on the surface, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. Virtuosity was detached from authenticity. If the pompier’s style was classicizing, then Raphael’s risky arabesques were turned into rote compositional curves and arcs. By the late nineteenth century, when the pompiers were adapting the lighter palette the Impressionists had pioneered in the 1870s, the blue and purple shadows and roiling brushwork of Monet were reinterpreted without their anxious edge. For decades, then, the word was a much beloved term of derision, as when Degas, no doubt thinking of the academy’s tendency to turn virtuosity into nothing but a show of hubris, observed, “C’est les pompiers qui se mettent en feu,” or “The firefighters are setting fire to themselves.”

If I am right, a great deal of what we are now seeing in the blue-chip galleries, the art fairs, and the auction houses is a new kind of pompier, with avant-garde attitudes that are by now venerable traditions turned into surface effects, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. John Currin’s figure paintings, with their blunt-force recapitulations of Boucher and Courbet, are almost textbook pompier. So is the figurative work of Lisa Yuskavage, seen in 2011 at Zwirner, and Glenn Brown, currently at Gagosian. Pompier painting was all about a kind of knowingness. Technique was marshaled not for deep experience but for immediate goals. When the painter Bonnat showed Degas a work by one of his students representing a warrior drawing his bow and said, “Just see how well he aims,” Degas is said to have responded, “Aiming at a prize, isn’t he?” Jeff Koons, always aiming for the prize of a bigger paycheck and this summer receiving the prize of an enormous Whitney retrospective, could be said to be a pompier version of Duchamp, with the master’s uncomfortable ironies smoothed out into easy seductions. A history of the new pompiers would wind back to the 1980s, when the Musée d’Orsay opened in Paris, giving institutional legitimacy to what had already been a growing interest in the original pompiers, and the Neo-Expressionists—especially Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl—inaugurated an era of visual ostentation characterized by brash perplexities, by difficulty reimagined as a form of salesmanship. As it happens, Schnabel is having something of a revival just now, with a big show at Gagosian in Chelsea.
Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Sigmar Polke, Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963

Among the late modern and postmodern pompiers, Polke is distinguished by the verve that he brings to his painterly concoctions. The fascination of his strongest compositions is in the way he works us over, titillating with special effects, enveloping us in the big hug of his visual mood music. That is certainly how I felt as I looked at Polke’s more than sixteen-foot-wide Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters (1991), with its Abstract Expressionist torrent of white paint over which Polke has cleverly layered an engraving of nineteenth-century figures from Grandville’s book Un Autre Monde, the allegorical figure of Autumn making snow that her daughters toss across the surface. The painting is almost crushingly lovely—a Neo-Dadaist romantic stage set, a Walt Disney-ized version of what might have been a Robert Motherwell idea. Equally beguiling, near the end of the show, is the nearly ten-foot-wide The Illusionist (2007), filled with figures derived from nineteenth-century engravings and executed in gel medium and acrylic on fabric, so that everything is as if seen through a sheet of old handblown glass. At the heart of this magical kingdom framed in faux curtains is a man who must be the illusionist and a woman blindfolded in a chair who must be his prime subject. Here is one of Joseph Cornell’s dream worlds, only on steroids. These pictures represent the gentler side of Polke. Amid his work in so many media, manners, and modes, there are also quite a few that aim to repel and maybe even revolt us, but even early in the show, where Polke’s faux-naïf paintings of a chocolate bar and a trio of biscuits are crudely forthright, there is a feeling for the cuisine of painting, even if it is an anti-cuisine cuisine.

Polke’s work, with its careening diversity, reminds us how close a link there is between virtuosity and parody, for virtuosity, when detached from some deep sympathy with an idea or ideal, almost inevitably becomes a joke of one sort or another. In 1968, in a series of paintings that fill much of a room at MoMA, Polke served up self-consciously flat-footed parodies of classic modern styles, including a “primitivist” painting with a rendering of an African statue, a Constructivist composition of strict verticals and horizontals, and a Color Field painting with a quartet of casually inscribed stripes. The knowingness of these paintings suggests a con artist you quite understandably find distasteful but whose cons for some reason fascinate as well. Compared with the iciness of Roy Lichtenstein’s satires of classic modern styles, there is something almost engaged about Polke, albeit in a sniggering way. When Polke incorporates in his paintings patterns of dots derived from commercial halftone printing, he gives them more life than Lichtenstein ever does, especially in Flying Saucers (1966), where the delicacy in the coloring of a yellowish sky spins a bit of magic above a toylike skyline.

Polke’s feeling for the romance of photomechanical reproduction was what first set me to thinking about his relationship with Dalí, who also took an interest in the halftone’s dot screen. Although discussions of Polke’s use of commercial styles and kitsch motifs generally focus on a connection with the work of Francis Picabia—this was the subject of a well-known essay in Artforum in 1982 by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh—at the Museum of Modern Art, it was Dalí I found coming to mind. Polke is a far more rough-hewn character than the dandified Dalí, but they do share a voracious eclecticism. Like Polke, Dalí had a sweet tooth when it came to optical tricks and regarded avant-garde experimentalism as a dumb-ass joyride; he riffed on Yves Klein’s blue body prints by slathering models in red paint to make his own body prints. Dalí not only mimicked the academic realism of artists such as Gérôme and Meissonier, he also enjoyed parodying the splattered paint of Pollock and Matthieu, the once famous exemplar of art informel,the French parallel to Abstract Expressionism.

With Polke, as with Dalí, style is a put-on job, an act—but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority. What has been referred to as the confusion or chaos of MoMA’s Polke show is so much a matter of spectacular dissonances and layerings that it produces no real disquietude in a gallerygoer, but rather what might be called a pompier disquietude—a confusion that is an academic rerun of the old Dadaist confusions. Since there is some authentic pictorial feeling in Polke, the conflicts are more interesting than they are in some other artists, but this self-congratulatory confusion characterizes many of the more outré art stars of recent years, among them Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley.

I realize that calling an artist a pompier can degenerate into little more than name-calling. To some it will seem far-fetched to refer to Polke as a pompier, when he was so interested in de-skilling—the de-skilling that was one of the avant-garde’s prime tools to counteract conventional ideas of finish or polish associated with the academy. In an interview in the MoMA catalogue, Benjamin Buchloh, who in 1976 in Germany mounted the first survey of Polke’s work, argues that the slapdash look of Polke’s drawings, which he admires enormously, is grounded in a self-consciously avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh wonders, “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” He asserts that Polke had to be “extremely good at drawing, to generate that degree of refined brutishness.” Although I do not agree with Buchloch that Polke is a “supreme draftsman”—I fail to see the depths in these doodles—what interests me is that Buchloh cannot avoid the whole question of virtuosity and its conscious denial, which brings us back to the great debate between the pompiers and the avant-garde. For Buchloh, the early Polke is the real virtuoso because he is a stealth virtuoso, or so Buchloh imagines. Buchloh explains that “Polke’s manner of de-skilling drawing by pushing it over to the threshold of the manifestly incompetent or deranged is always sustained in the last moment by its lyrical line.”

Buchloh’s argument about Polke’s drawings sounds like some of the arguments made on behalf of Matisse’s most daring experiments in the years leading up to World War I. And this argument about the virtues of de-skilling can be found even earlier, for example in Renoir’s comment that “some of Rembrandt’s finest etchings look as if they had been done with a stick of wood or the point of a nail.” Which is all to say that what Buchloh is making is an argument for the anarchic anti-virtuosity of Polke as being grounded in a version of old-fashioned artistic virtuosity. This is probably how the curators at the Museum of Modern Art would like us to regard the entirety of “Alibis,” although Halbreich’s admission that the work sometimes confuses or scares her may suggest that she has some worries on this count.

The retrospective presents Polke as a megalomaniacal show-off, the dystopian and utopian aspects of his personality mingled and clashed. For a time Polke was close friends with Gerhard Richter. Much as Richter’s shifts from representation to abstraction and back have been seen as an attempt to trump the old modern debates but actually only mimic them, so Polke’s Neo-Dada permissiveness ultimately feels stale and second-hand—no, third-hand. If the pompiers of the nineteenth century were condemned to reenact the old polemics of classicists, romantics, and realists as mere poses and posturings, who can doubt that Polke is reenacting as poses and posturings the old polemics of the Dadaists and the abstractionists?

A good percentage of the art world is now dominated by pompier reenactments of one variety or another; many call it postmodern, but pompier is more to the point. Of course all art is in some sense a reenactment: that is one definition of tradition. But the reenactment, to elude parody and pompier, must involve a discovery or a disclosure of what is most personal in the process of reenactment. That is what makes the old new. The Museum of Modern Art has just announced that it will host a retrospective of work by Robert Gober this fall, and although his work is in large measure a reenactment of Duchamp and Dada, Gober is anything but a pompier: his curious objects are created with a willful intentness, a finicky artisanal refinement that gives them, whether one ultimately cares for them or not, a rootedness, an authority. Robert Gober and Jeff Koons draw on more or less the same sources, but the results could not be more different. Pompier is not a style or a set of conventions but an attitude that short-circuits and trivializes a style or a set of conventions.
State of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Jonathan Muzikarvg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters and other paintings in “Alibis”

The pompier artist has a shallow understanding of virtuosity, but of course it is in the very nature of virtuosity, which at its best is technique that expresses emotion, that it is almost always in danger of degenerating into an empty display of technique. That may be what Buchloh sees happening in Polke’s later work, which he apparently does not care for. It is certainly how many observers used to regard the later work of de Kooning. Nowadays, de Kooning’s canvases of the 1970s and 1980s, with their swashbuckling brushwork and vertiginous color, are often praised as Rubensesque (or even Titianesque!), but I think they are most accurately described as a pompier version of Abstract Expressionist painterliness—an unfortunate case of an artist parodying himself, and not, I think, in full control or much of any control of the joke, if that is what some imagine it to be.

Of course one person’s hard-won virtuosity is another person’s competent conventionality. A case in point is the paintings of little crowds gathered by the edges of lakes in Richard La Presti’s show at the Bowery Gallery this spring. La Presti, who was born the year after Polke, is an artist whose work I have admired for decades, and after a number of exhibitions that focused on densely wooded landscapes and struck me as overly deferential in their relationship with the prismatic naturalism of Cézanne, I am delighted to report that La Presti’s broad but exact brushwork has achieved a new depth of poetic feeling. La Presti’s paintings, with their gently comic vignettes of figures in leisure-time mode, are so far from the spirit of parody and pompier that is now the art world’s default position that it may be difficult for most gallerygoers to grasp their subtle excellence. La Presti, despite his bravura brushwork, is the anti-pompier. Setting varied physiques against the glimmerings of water, sand, and sky, he makes of each brushstroke a double drama, embodying both the reality of the paint and the reality of nature, the two in a tango. This is an old modern or even a premodern tango, but who ever said there was anything wrong with another turn around the dance floor?

I see echoes of Baudelaire’s beloved Constantin Guys in the exactitude with which La Presti observes a skinny or overweight bather or a mother with a child. And there is originality in the way his full-bodied colors are marshaled to achieve a silvery wistfulness. But in the merciless calculus of the art world, Polke, whether you love him or hate him, looms very large, whereas La Presti counts not at all. It hardly matters that La Presti’s work has been written about in the art magazines from time to time, and that in recent years he has exhibited around the country with a group called Zeuxis, which brings distinguished exhibitions of still-life painting (which La Presti does when it is too cold to paint outside) to college and university galleries. La Presti, who was trained at a famous art school, Pratt Institute, by teachers who matter or at least once upon a time were thought to matter, is neither an outsider nor an outlier. He knows the museums and the history of art, so he cannot be a beneficiary of the new quasi-Quakerism, which favors the incoherent and the ill-informed, nor does his virtuosity entitle him to find favor among the new pompiers, from whose circle he is barred by his sincerity. How good do I think La Presti’s work really is? It quite naturally makes one think of Boudin, that serenely incisive painter of nineteenth-century beaches. If Boudin’s work has turned out to live, which it certainly has, I see no reason why the same should not be true of La Presti’s.

La Presti’s paintings bring to mind a phrase that I believe was coined by the painter Leland Bell, whom La Presti admires, when Bell, half a century ago, described the work of a painter he admired, André Derain. Bell wrote that Derain exemplified “virtuosity without self-interest—virtuosity conquered.” It occurs to me that Bell, who died in 1991, was probably the last person I ever heard use the term pompier in casual conversation. He was a Francophile who had spent time in Paris in the 1950s, when he must have found the word still in currency among the city’s artists. Bell clearly meant “virtuosity without self-interest” as a riposte to the self-interested virtuosity that defined pompier painting. And his phrase still bears close consideration today, when it is the challenge of a virtuosity without self-interest that artists desperately need to embrace.

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity—or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity—as any exhibition I have ever seen. The answer to self-interest, of course, is not disinterest (a word frequently misused today), which suggests impartiality, the value of remaining above the fray. Virtuosity must be a kind of vitality, but also a kind of virtue, in the sense of being tied to honesty, to authenticity, to style as a disclosure of personality. Pompier—and certainly the pompier of Polke—is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances. There are rooms in the wildly jam-packed Sigmar Polke retrospective where I feel that I am being sucked in by the acts of a man who is in equal parts singular, fascinating, and overbearing. I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).

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Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

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Sigmar Polke at MOMA
by Michael Pepi
Posted: Jun 04, 2014 12:01 PM

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
There are precious few artists whose work critics truly fear. And it’s not always the ones you might expect. Categories fail to do justice to the agile nature with which the German artist Sigmar Polke moved through his career. From the first capitalist realist exhibition in 1963 to the lenticular archival drawings of the past decade, Polke flirted with charged iconography, courted amnesia, and remained suspicious of good taste.
For the variability of his source material, the diversity of his formal strategies, and the multiplicity of meanings that implicate fraught histories, Polke has garnered much scholarly and institutional attention. The latest show to take on his work is “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” in which the Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern have co-organized the first retrospective to include all of his mediums. The genius of this exhibition is that you risk leaving confused about Polke’s messages. Is he remembering or forgetting? Warning or celebrating? Representing or obscuring? Then somewhere amidst Polke’s impressive dexterity you see the objects unfolding before you as artistic realizations of the vexing problems of late twentieth-century art.
If these questions now have a detached, academic air, they were perhaps more urgent in postwar Germany. Depending on how you look at it, German artists of Polke’s generation were either doomed to historical impotence or blessed with a tortuous legacy that fed an ever-evolving cycle of veiled meanings. Luckily, Polke departed from many of his contemporaries by exploiting the latter.
Born in 1941, Polke originally apprenticed with a glass painter and travelled extensively, though he was active primarily in the Federal Republic of Germany, where he wasted few opportunities to situate his work clearly within his geo-political surroundings. While the exhibition shows such links to be inextricable, MOMA and the Tate Modern’s extensive catalogue points out that he often rejected readings of his work as a mere reflection of recent history or contemporary politics. The exhibition’s roughly chronological orientation provides ample space for this tension to play out. As nearly every work on view attests, postwar Germany goaded him out of conformity.

Sigmar Polke, The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, 21′ 4 5⁄16″ x 16′ 1 1⁄8″ (651 x 490.5 cm), Private Collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The exhibition opens in the Museum’s second floor atrium. The glorious diversity of Polke’s work is all here, neatly (as possible) packed into a whiplash tour of some of his largest works. The atrium contains a recent lenticular piece, Seeing Rays (Strahlen Sehen) (2007); a tarpaulin work depicting an Al-Qaeda-hunting unmanned drone The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida) (2002); and several examples of his signature raster technique—an often manually executed variation of the Ben-Day dots that transfixed American Pop art. This process is typified by one of the show’s highlights: Girlfriends (Freundinnen) (1965/1966), for which Polke copied a tabloid-like image of two swimwear-clad women by purposefully disrupting the offset printing process used in newsprint.
The works in the atrium are big, bold, and risky. Polke had a knack—a predilection, even—for making statements at inopportune times. For example, one is likely to be struck by just how prescient The Hunt for the Taliban looks today. In 2002, Polke was among the earliest to have tapped the aesthetic capacity of the unmanned drone, that emblematic object of post-9/11 counterterrorism.

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
But we should expect nothing less. The Federal Republic of Germany’s politics, bureaucracy, policing of terror groups, and Cold War divisions of the most literal kind are present throughout the show. Nearby in the atrium is Police Pig (Polizeischwein) (1986), a raster painting depicting a real German drug-sniffing police pig, but, of course, the title also references the double entendre often aimed at authority. This and other political works are never within precise reach, though, as Polke is a virtuoso at contrasting these with formal elements that make their surface iconography ever more idiosyncratic. Polke made Untitled (Dr. Bonn) (1978) at the height of the bloody events known as Deutscher Herbst, in which imprisoned members of the left-wing terrorist group known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang inspired a spate of kidnappings and assassinations. A cartoonish scene of statecraft and dissent executed on a grid-patterned fabric support, the work depicts a faceless bureaucrat seated below the gang leaders’ wanted posters and pointing a slingshot at his own head. (Bonn was also the name of West Germany’s then de facto capital). This use of the rather loud fabric is essential to Polke’s work in general. Not only in the materiality and politics of its employment, but also for its ability to tie together subjects across radically abrupt shifts in visual strategy.
Season’s Hottest Trend (2003) also hangs in the atrium. It’s a later example of Polke’s Stoffbilders, the fabric works that he and Blinky Palermo became known for in the 1960s. The work is significant in its striking use of three different material bands: a transparent bottom, fake pink “fur,” and a blue monochrome section. This massive work stands as symbol of, among other things, Polke’s longtime willingness to make use of commercial materials, at first out of art student necessity, and then as improvisations that evoke his relationship to modernism and German ideologies.

Sigmar Polke, Modern Art (Moderne Kunst), 1968; Acrylic and lacquer on canvas, 59 1/16 x 49 3/16″ (150 x 125 cm), Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
We see here again that Polke had an irreverent attitude toward the generic abstraction on the 1960s. This is foregrounded by the recent history of Germany’s official opposition to Entartete Kunst as well as the political uses of modernist style as a symbol of the capitalist West’s freedom. This was best summarized by works like Moderne Kunst (1968) and Constructivist (Konstruktivistisch) (1968), in which Polke overtly quotes modernist elements in prototypical compositions. For Polke abstraction was, in this sense, a cliché worthy of parody, but also a tool that points to the difficulties presented by any such direct worship of modernist forbearers.
Everywhere he worked he exposed danger. In Cardboardology (Pappologie) (1968–69), he traces the fictional lineage of cardboard from box to box, pace eugenics. In later photographs entitled Uranium (Pink) (Urangestein [Rosa]) (1992) he captured the effects of the radioactive element Uranium on photographic paper, this right in the wake of major protests of nuclear power in Europe in the 1980s.

Installation view of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur. From disturbing appropriation of Nazi symbols (reminders of nationalism as much as they were purposely incendiary gestures) to his routine mockery of rational scientific thought, to outright references to the barbed wire of labor camps, the current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through August 3, 2014.

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“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.

 

“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.CREDITCOURTESY ESTATE OF SIGMAR POLKE / ARS, NY / VG BILD-KUNST, BONN, GERMANY; PHOTO: ALISTAIR OVERBRUCK

The Art World APRIL 28, 2014 ISSUE

Shock Artist
A Sigmar Polke retrospective.

BY PETER SCHJELDAHL
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010,” a wondrous retrospective of the late German artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed. I fancy that young artists will feel put to a test. Even longtime Polke fans may be amazed by the cumulative power of the two hundred and sixty-five works on view, in painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography, and film. The modes range from the cartoonishly figurative to the augustly abstract, and the mediums from paint and pencil to toxic chemicals and meteorite dust. There is no Polke style, but only a distinctive force of talent and mind. With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece, and he regularly frustrated the efforts that curators, dealers, and critics made on his behalf, in ways that blurred his public image and hobbled his sales. He would still be at it, if he had lived to finish collaborating on “Alibis” with Kathy Halbreich, MOMA’s associate director. (Polke died, of cancer, in 2010, at the age of sixty-nine.) Halbreich says that Polke rejected a chronological arrangement of the work. There’s no telling what sort of unnerving layout he would have demanded. Mercifully for viewers, Halbreich has imposed a conventional order, except for an olio of big works, from different periods, in the museum’s atrium. The effect is intensive and intense. We may now begin to understand an artist who, like a fugitive throwing dust in the eyes of pursuers, took pains not to be understood.

Polke was of a generation of Germans who inherited a defiled national culture. The “alibis” in the show’s title start, in Halbreich’s telling, with a postwar German mantra: “I didn’t see anything.” Polke came from the East, like Gerhard Richter, his peer and, for several years in the nineteen-sixties, his close friend. (It’s a bit distorting, but irresistible, to deem Richter the cunning Apollo, and Polke the rampaging Dionysus, of the period’s renaissance in German art.) Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia, the seventh of eight children of a father who trained to be an architect. In 1945, the family fled to Soviet-occupied Thuringia, during an expulsion of Germans from Silesia, which became part of Poland. In 1953, abandoning nearly all their possessions, they escaped to the West on a train, with young Polke ordered to feign sleep, to deflect suspicion. They settled in Düsseldorf, where Polke apprenticed to a stained-glass manufacturer and entered the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961. Modern art was then enjoying a lofty prestige in West Germany, as a counterweight to the scalding memories of the Reich and to the menacing ideology of the East. Polke embraced the art but scorned the piety, resisting even the utopianism of the academy’s charismatic guide and teacher, Joseph Beuys. Polke quickly became a galvanic presence in a cohort that included Richter, who, nine years older, and living on refugee assistance, had recently escaped the East after having been schooled unhappily in Socialist Realism.
Young German artists were stirred by the emerging Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Polke took to painting proletarian consumer goods—chocolate bars, soap, plastic buckets—and ordinary news and magazine photographs, in a rugged variant of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. The first was a scrappy image of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1963, Polke, Richter, and two artist friends, unable to interest galleries in their work, mounted a group show, in a former butcher shop, of what they termed “Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism.” The last two words resonate with an exquisite ambivalence, skewering both parties to the Cold War: the commercial West and the dogmatic East. Polke and Richter, like Warhol, conveyed underclass perspectives on popular spectacles of commerce and glamour—“outdoing each other in terms of the lowest forms of banality,” according to the German art historian and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who knew both men at the time, and is interviewed in the show’s catalogue. But they did so with lacerating skepticism, which, in Polke’s case, abided no distinction between the vulgarities of mass culture and the pretenses of fine art. What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.
Polke was a big man with the twinkle of a gamin. I met him a few times and found him dazzlingly intelligent, funny, and exhausting. As Buchloh says, “You could not have a conversation with Polke without his continuously destabilizing your sense of self, without his suggesting that it rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal.” In 2008, I sat through much of an afternoon in his chaotic warehouse studio and home in Cologne while, pulling books from the shelves of his immense library, he discoursed on ancient philosophical and technical sources for a suite of stained-glass windows, in the Protestant cathedral of Zürich, which became his last major project. I felt awash in a sea of exotic erudition and ungraspable logic, listening to Polke as, with absorption and course-correcting irony, he listened to himself. My profit was an inkling of how he made art, monitoring an internal crossfire—or a chorus—of ideas.

There was a fearless, spooky otherness to his cast of mind, in key with an attraction to mysticism. “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!” is the title of a canvas in the show from 1969; the corner is black. In the early seventies, he shared a farmhouse with many friends and indulged heavily in hallucinogenic drugs, which caused a dip in his career, but, in contrast to the more commonly dicey toll of such a regimen, plainly nourished the brainstorms of his later work. These include: huge atmospheric abstractions, incorporating details of the signature of Dürer; pink photographic prints, made by exposing film to uranium; majestic panels of glass, smudged with soot; paintings that orchestrate antic images from nineteenth-century engravings; and, in a slide show, the beautiful Zürich windows, some of them made of slices of agate and other stones. The Christological symbol of the scapegoat, seen both arriving in the frame and leaving it, hints at a spiritual crisis without end.

Polke trashed the conventions of painting throughout his career—overlaying images on printed fabric in lieu of canvas, for instance, or using resins that rendered cloth semi-transparent—and in the process revitalized a medium that was discounted, in the sixties, by iconoclastic minimalism and Conceptual art. His influence was slow to cross the Atlantic, though, owing partly to his principled elusiveness, and largely to the insularity of the New York art world. But by the early eighties young Americans were plundering his inventions to feed the resurgence in painting that was known as Neo-Expressionism. The belated discovery of Polke’s work came as a shock. I remember my first look at “Paganini” (1981-83), a riotous painting, more than sixteen feet long, in which the musician, on his deathbed, and the Devil, playing a violin, are accompanied by swirls of skulls and tiny swastikas. It struck me then as a one-upping of Neo-Expressionism. Here it is again, at MOMA, in a room that Halbreich has brilliantly crowded with tours de force from the artist’s middle period. Now I see it as an acrid burlesque of the movement, purging Polke of paternal responsibility for it and, by sheer excess, mocking his own virtuosity. Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic. ♦

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peter schjeldahl
Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic.

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Sigmar Polke's Aesthetic Escape Velocity on View at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Acquired through the generosity of Edgar Wachenheim III and Ronald S. Lauder
Polke takes off: Untitled (1975)

Sigmar Polke was a prisoner of his childhood, as are most of us. Born in 1941, when the Nazis were at their apogee, he suffered an impoverished youth in communist East Germany after the Third Reich‘s collapse, followed by a disorienting exodus, in 1953, to Düsseldorf and the comparative riches of the West. “It wasn’t really heaven,” Polke later said of his family’s move when he was 12. “That early painting of mine, The Sausage Eater from 1963, was critical in a way; you can eat too much and blow up too big.” The 22-year-old artist may have been reacting to gluttonous capitalism when he depicted a mouth set in chubby cheeks gobbling up 61 brown links, but he was also embarking on a voracious — not to say insatiable — search for provocatively altered states that would renew the ancient art of painting.
In 1964, Polke scripted a fake interview featuring his friend and fellow painter Gerhard Richter, in which his satiric version of Richter brags, “The big death camps in Eastern Europe worked with my pictures. The inmates dropped dead at mere sight. . . . Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.” In a 1976 exhibition, Polke erected a fence topped with wooden letters spelling out “Art Makes You Free,” parodying the sardonic “Work Makes You Free” that the Nazis had emblazoned over the gates of Auschwitz. As art historian Christine Mehringhas pointed out, Polke was employing bad — OK, atrocious — taste in an attempt to pierce his countrymen’s alibi of blindness.Polke was a one-man group show. He worked with a staggering array of materials, including paint of every formulation, photographic emulsion, lacquer, uranium, Xerox, resins, film, meteoric granulate, silver leaf, and other concoctions that he marshaled into mélanges of abstraction, figuration, mechanical reproduction, cosmic charts, dreamscapes, porn, comics, and pretty much everything else in creation’s kaleidoscope. His vision quest didn’t shy away from the most horrible specter his generation of Germans faced: the sins of their fathers, including the big lie muttered by the many perpetrators of the war and the Holocaust who later held positions of power in West Germany: “I didn’t see anything.”

Details

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010′
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through August 3

See November 5, 2014

The tendrils of the horrendous past that clawed at Polke’s generation inform a striking 1978 painting displayed halfway through MOMA‘s appropriately sprawling retrospective: A blank-faced cartoon bureaucrat aims a slingshot at his forehead as “Wanted” posters for members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang watch over his clumsy antics. (Unlike the literally faceless functionary, the terrorists have their eyes wide open.) In the ’70s, posters of these glowering Marxist revolutionaries, who blasted their way through West Germany while railing against its fascist past, were plastered across the nation. You can feel in this powerful composition — the action takes place within a cone of white light that mimics the “V” of the taut slingshot — Polke’s desire to create as visceral an impact through art as terrorists have with violence.

Polke generated the aesthetic escape velocity he needed for such titanic ambition through the unbridled combinations of scale, materials, and content he deployed in his alchemical confabulations of history and fantasy. In a 10-foot-high depiction of a watchtower, painted on bubble wrap, the semi-transparent ground and the runnels and eddies of yellow, pink, and acidic green enamel cast ephemeral shadows that echo the grayish silhouette of the observation post, a chilling yet undeniably gorgeous vision of limbo infused with menace. In another version, the ghostly white outlines of the tower float above fabric printed with flowers and partially blackened with pigment, the sooty pall harkening back to the concentration camps but also commenting on the surveillance of the entire populace of East Germany at the time these huge paintings were created (in that auspicious year of 1984).

Polke’s flair for historical hurly-burly matches that of Veronese, who, when hauled before the Inquisition in 1573 because of the licentious liberties he took in his sumptuous biblical murals, nonchalantly informed the court, “We painters take the same license the poets and the jesters take.” It was Polke’s unfettered license that helped him strike those chords of incongruous beauty over and over again, sometimes through the visual noise of the patterned fabrics he often preferred. In one small painting he contrasts a pair of wavy green palm trees against a gray-and-orange-striped fabric; in another piece, he bounces painted green circles off a rose pattern on a dun field, the brushed colors exquisitely tuned to the hues of the preprinted surfaces. Swiftly rendered herons in a trio of paintings are reminiscent of Matisse’s corporeal draftsmanship; the checkered pastel grounds channel that master’s chromatic virtuosity.

Ultimately, Polke left his past behind, pulling painting into the future with his uninhibited amalgams of concept and medium. According to a cogent essay by curator Kathy Halbreich, Polke pursued an “encyclopedic and not entirely recreational study of hallucinogens from various cultures, including mushrooms and frog urine.” One gallery brings together entrancing collages, paintings, and photos of tree-size toadstools; music from Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, The Residents, and Captain Beefheart drifts from overhead speakers, inducing an aesthetic contact high. (Beefheart, whose real name was Don Van Vliet, also lived from 1941 to 2010, and was a notoriously free-spirited painter himself.) Adding to the party vibe is a nearby print of a man gazing in wonder at the palm-tree–like penis erupting from his loins, while a gaggle of cartoon nudes giggle appreciatively. A painting covered with iron mica reflects light from a nearby film documenting one of Polke’s massive canvases as it is lifted and lowered, powdered pigment and resins mixing and wriggling across the surface like some primordial landscape shuddering into being. The metallic pigments Polke experimented with are capable of tugging a viewer’s hazy reflection deep into the voluptuous depths of his layered, densely intermingled surfaces.

In another series, Polke slid old-school engravings around on the glass of a copy machine as it was scanning in order to drag the illustrated figures out like brushstrokes; in the last gallery, a four-screen slide show of these distorted, ecstatic bodies becomes a graphic rave set to the rhythmic clacking of old-fashioned carousels.

This powerful show pays witness not only to Polke’s conceptual brilliance and technical virtuosity but also to the perverse ego that drove him. In 1969, he filmed himself attached to ropes arranged in the shape of a heart as Chet Baker crooned, in “My Funny Valentine,” “Your looks are laughable/Un-photographable/Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.”

No denying that Polke, who died too young at age 69, fits the bill.

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Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

‘Moderne Kunst’ (1968)

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

 

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WSJOURNAL

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010′ at the Museum of Modern Art

  • By
  • April 23, 2014 5:16 p.m. ET
    New York

    In gallery six of the Museum of Modern Art’s enormous and noisy Sigmar Polke retrospective, one woman said to another: “Let’s get out of here. I’ve hit my saturation point.” Surrounded by work from the 1970s, she was only about halfway through the chronological survey, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010.” Yet I understood and envied her premature exit.

    Watchtower’ (1984). Estate of Sigmar Polke/ ARS/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    The two women had been dividing their attention between Polke’s large-scale illustrative drawing “Untitled” (1973), a comically exaggerated psychedelic rendition of pornography; and the 35-minute documentary film “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky / Afghanistan-Pakistan” (c. 1974-76). Distorted by the artist, it features men smoking cannabis; a costumed monkey performing acrobatic tricks; and a long, vicious bout in which dogs are pitted against a reluctant bear.

    Like all of the 11 exhibition spaces in “Alibis,” gallery six is hung salon-style—cheek-to-jowl. But it’s especially trying. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was known to have made extensive use of recreational drugs. He also had a tendency, according to a gallery director who worked with him, to use his provocative artwork “to torture his friends.”

    Gallery six is crammed with about 40 artworks from 1969 to 1978, including films with clashing soundtracks. Wall text informs us that because these artworks were created during “a time of great social, political and artistic unrest, as well as widespread experimentation with countercultural lifestyles and drugs,” MoMA’s “dense constellation” is intended to “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” This is wishful-thinking. Let’s just call this portion of the show the worst leg of a bad trip.

    Comprising more than 250 artworks amounting to roughly 370 individual paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, collages, sculptures, installations, soundworks and video screens, which loop more than nine hours of film, “Alibis” is one of the largest exhibitions ever at MoMA. It also ranks among the most repetitive and impenetrable. But according to the museum, bewilderment and nihilism are precisely the point of Polke’s art.

    Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010

    The Museum of Modern Art

    Through Aug. 3

    Polke (1941-2010) was born in the Silesian region of eastern Germany, what is now western Poland. He and his family fled Silesia in 1945, just before the end of the war, for what would soon be Soviet-occupied East Germany. In 1953, they escaped to West Germany, where the artist lived until the end of his life.

    “Alibis” refers in part to postwar Germany where, to deflect blame for Nazi atrocities, the common line was “I didn’t see anything.” Yet here it has at least a double meaning. The show offers little of aesthetic value to “see.” (“It’s the processes in and for themselves that interest me,” Polke said. “The picture isn’t really necessary.”) The title also refers to Polke’s antiauthoritarian antics: He grew up trusting no one and nothing, which becomes an alibi for his gamesmanship and mistrust of art.

    Polke was a postmodernist—he mocked and lampooned all artistic styles (figuration, abstraction, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism) and mediums (painting, film, sculpture, photography, craft, performance art). Jester-of-all-trades, he was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again.

    Organized by Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall, at MoMA, and Mark Godfrey, at London’s Tate Modern (where the show will open in October), “Alibis” celebrates Polke’s embrace of accident and chance; his distrust, exploitation and undermining of—as well as his irreverence toward—all things authoritative. Yet his primary target was art.

    Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions. He riffed on Paul Gauguin, lifting and belittling his Polynesian women; and Albrecht Dürer, whose classic “Hare” Polke reduced to mere cartoon. He also played with Francisco de Goya, Roy Lichtenstein, Kazimir Malevich and Jackson Pollock. He noodled with comic books, magazine advertising, Rorschach tests, pornography and Victorian children’s books; atomic energy, the Berlin Wall, Nazi death camps and post-9/11 drone attacks. Often, Polke mixed artistic styles and political positions in a single soupy, seemingly unfinished artwork, as if—gunning for everyone—his position was: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

    This sometimes meant killing the artworks themselves. Polke had a penchant for working in unorthodox materials such as soot, goofy printed fabrics, unprimed substrates and Bubble Wrap. A large yellow-orange canvas is dusted with meteorite granulite. A series of hot-pink chromogenic color prints have white halos, which have been made with radioactive uranium. He also embraced errors and accidents—blurring and overlaying negatives in the darkroom and moving images on the copy machine—as well as planned disintegration. Polke diluted photographic chemicals with coffee and dishwashing liquid. In one large painting in a series depicting concentration-camp watchtowers, he treated the finished picture with a light-sensitive silver oxide that eventually will darken completely black.

    On the cover of the show’s catalog is a photo of Polke as a boy, controlling a marionette. The point, of course, is that he’s an artist working behind, above and beyond the scene—a master-prankster, a master-puppeteer. We—no less than art—are mere playthings for Polke; and we should be pleased to let him dangle us by the strings.

    The great fallacy of this exhibition, however—and of Polke’s oeuvre—is especially apparent in the final gallery, which shifts to a more somber and reverent tone. After the show has pummeled visitors with the artist’s shenanigans, it suddenly want us to take Polke seriously as a craftsman with the aesthetic ability to handle the 2006 commission of a dozen stained-glass windows for Zurich’s Grossmünster cathedral.

    Granted, a slideshow of the finished project is the best thing on view here. But you can’t have it both ways. Polke apprenticed early on as a painter at a stained-glass factory. His seven abstract windows exploring Genesis are made of translucent, thinly sliced, artificially colored agate. Naturally attractive, they conjure cellular growth and medieval illustrations of Creation. Yet, like a boy laughing in church, Polke can’t help himself. His windows work doggedly against the established metaphoric, geometric program of the cathedral. They betray Polke’s fundamental irreverence and subversiveness in a show where nothing is sacred.

    Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

     

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    NYTIMES

    SLIDE SHOW|13 Photos

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

    Get confused is the first and last message of“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at the Museum of Modern Art. And if you think, as I do, that some degree of continuing bafflement is a healthy reaction to art, this disorienting contact high of a show is for you.

    Polke, who died in 2010 at 69, is usually mentioned in the same breath with two German near-contemporaries, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, as one of the great European male artists of the postwar years. Of the three, though, he was the most resistant to branding, and is still the hardest to get a handle on.

    In media, he was all over the map: painting (abstract and figurative), drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, installation, performance, sound art; he did them all, often messy, counterintuitive combinations. Stylistically, he brushed up against Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, only to lift their moves and mock them.

    He had a thing about making art from weird materials: tawdry fabrics, radioactive pigments, liquid detergent, soot. He put the discipline in interdisciplinary under stress. His work can be daintily detailed and virtuosic, but it can also look polish-aversive and incomplete. Sometimes he seems to start a painting or a drawing, then stop, as if to say: You get the idea.

    For a long time, museums and galleries didn’t know how to deal with him; that is, with all of him. The standard procedure was to isolate a slice of work that had some visual and thematic coherence: pictures sharing a color, say, or ones with lots of the hand-applied, Benday-style dots that the market pushed as a Polke signature. The prospect of a survey that brought the full range of his multifarious output together under one roof must have seemed daunting even to Polke himself. But that’s what MoMA has done in a show that fills all of its second-floor contemporary galleries, including the atrium, and then some.

    The arrangement is mostly by date, though because Polke was an accumulator, a recycler and a mix-master of styles, that doesn’t give viewers a visual narrative line to follow. Nor have the curators — Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall of MoMA, and Mark Godfrey of the Tate Modern — provided object labels. Instead, and this an excellent idea, they’ve designed a free, gallery-by-gallery, work-by-work checklist, a kind of Baedeker for the perplexed that incorporates some useful commentary. (Ms. Halbreich’s catalog essay, by the way, is superb.)

    Even with that, the show throws you right in at the deep end. The opening installation, in the atrium and first gallery, spans 40 years of Polke’s career, looks like a multiartist group show, and just says: Deal with it. And so, without a compass, you do, taking in at one sweep 1960s drawings of flying saucers and swastikas; jumpy films shot in Zurich and Papua New Guinea; a big, fluffy 2003 fabric collage titled “Season’s Hottest Trend”; a giant digital print tracing the routes of United States Predator drones after Sept. 11.

    From this array, you learn that Polke’s art was sometimes antagonistically political, though its politics could be hard to decipher outside a very specific cultural context. A Pop-ish-looking 1960s painting of neatly folded dress shirts refers to the “economic miracle” that was restoring a defeated Germany to bourgeois prosperity. A companion picture in the same style — “Capitalist Realism,” Polke called it — of a minute figure sucking in sausages nails the new consumerism as a form of binge-eating-till-you-black-out, designed to induce amnesia about the wartime past.

    That past was Polke’s past. He was born in 1941 into a German bourgeois family that was forced to move from German Silesia (now part of Poland) to Soviet-occupied East Germany before escaping to West Germany in 1953. As a teenager, he apprenticed in a stained-glass factory, then from 1961 to 1967 studied at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf. There he befriended Mr. Richter, who, like many other students, was under the spell of Joseph Beuys. At once attracted by, and skeptical of, Beuys’s charisma, Polke pulled back and went his own way, which became the pattern of his life.

    “Fathers are depressing,” Gertrude Stein said. Polke seemed to agree. So did the antiauthoritarian era during which he came into his own as an artist, and in which he immersed himself, living and working communally, engaging in love fests and drug fests, traveling, cameras always in hand, through the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. He remained, in certain ways, an unreconstructed 1960s person to the end of his life, fascinated with esoteric philosophies, paranormal phenomena, alchemy and psychochemical exploration. These elements contributed to his outsider identity within the international art world and shaped his art.

    A couple of galleries into the show, you come upon a kind of cosmopolitan hippie encampment. Films Polke shot in Pakistan and Brazil are playing. Hazy pictures he took of men on the Bowery line a wall. And there are some fantastic paintings and drawings that layer 19th-century engravings; fabrics printed with Gauguin’s South Seas beauties; references to “higher beings” (Blake, Goya, Dürer); and images of mushrooms and skulls.

    In a show that has the variety and novelty of a souk, hierarchies of “value” evaporate. High versus low, modern versus traditional, art versus craft, genuine versus inauthentic: None of these, Polke suggests, are really opposites. And even art he derides he takes seriously. He lampoons the pretensions of painterly abstraction — its egocentricity, its political escapism — but he also sticks up for it. How could you not defend an art that the Third Reich condemned as “degenerate”?

    Abstraction also gave Polke a pretext to go wild with the alchemic outré: Arsenic, meteorite dust, coffee and soap were precious work materials. And even in his abstraction, politics was never far away. A series of auralike photographs made by placing radioactive uranium on photographic plates had to have a loaded meaning for someone raised in the shadow of the Cold War. Semiabstract depictions of wooden watchtowers, traditional German hunting perches, take on inescapable associations with death camp architecture.

    Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

    Accident, serendipitous or engineered, became the foundation for much of Polke’s late work: paintings based on commercial printing errors or on images the artist dragged across screens of copying machines. And in 2006, he went back to his beginnings with a commission for stained-glass window design from the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich, home church to Huldrych Zwingli, an iconoclastic force in the Protestant Reformation.

    Seven of Polke’s windows are devoted to the theme of the Creation, and he turned them into the equivalent of a 1960s light show: abstract compositions made from clusters of thin-sliced, odd-shaped, color-dyed agates that suggest cellular forms. You see them in a video at the end of the show, images of primal slime with a sunlit, mescaline glow.

    Unlike Mr. Richter and Mr. Kiefer, Polke remains something of a puzzle when taken piece by piece. There are powerful things at MoMA, but also scraps, doodles, studies, toss-offs that can make you think, “Why am I looking at this?” It’s easy to envision a more tightly edited take on this artist, one that would make him look more ordinarily Great. But it turns out that his career is more interesting and unusual when seen episodically, mixed up, en masse. He has this, and other things, in common with Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose survey at MoMA PS 1 last fall feels, in retrospect, like a bookend to the Polke show.

    Both artists are perplexing in similar ways. Their art is both protean and of a piece, riddled with weaknesses — fussbudgety viewers can have a field day with Polke; they did with Kelley — that add up to a strength. Museums want masterpieces, but Polke, though he produced some, was into process, not perfection. Art history wants wrap-ups, final accounts. The Polke retrospective is such an account, written with commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, but no periods, no full stops.

    ===

    Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 review – voraciously off-the-wall pop
    4 / 5 stars
    Tate Modern’s retrospective takes up 14 rooms. And it’s barely enough to contain the messy, druggy, unfathomably elusive and wondrous art of Sigmar Polke

    ‘He was nothing but wayward’ … Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/PR
    Adrian Searle/GUARDIAN LONDON
    Monday 6 October 2014 12.13 EDT

    Entire artistic careers might be made from small aspects of Sigmar Polke’s multifarious art, which now fills 14 rooms at Tate Modern. The third Tate show devoted to Polke in 20 years, Alibis is a compendious and at times bewildering romp through a career that began in the early 1960s and ended with Polke’s death in 2010.

    Dealing with Polke’s legacy has only just begun. There is a lot of messy unfinished business, and much of it is here. As well as paintings, there are films of early performances and games with potatoes, weirdly exposed and manipulated photographs, a slide-show room of photocopy experiments, tables of sketchbook drawings reproduced and flicked-through on iPad tablets.
    Beginning in the early 1960s with a perverse German pop art celebrating sorry and unglamorous foodstuffs, plastic buckets, socks and sausages, Polke was from the beginning (and as one of Joseph Beuys’s favourite students in Düsseldorf) as critical as he was playful. Even Beuys’s shamanism and pseudo-mysticism became a butt for later parody, even though Polke was as much attracted as repelled by the other-worldly.

    Contaminating errant abstractions with half-hidden swastikas and dizzy, cartoonish swipes and spirals, Polke went on to conduct beyond-the-grave séances with William Blake and to commune with higher beings, who, one painting famously tells us, commanded Polke to “Paint the right-hand corner black”. Fanciful arabesques copied from Albrecht Dürer engravings, Goya’s Caprichos and hippy-trail home movies all played their part in Polke’s art.

    “My mind cracked like custard,” sings the late Captain Beefheart, in the concert soundtrack Polke used for a film which captures the artist fooling around in the countryside commune where he lived during the 1970s, and aiming a camera at a TV documentary about imprisoned Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Another film takes us to an opium den in Pakistan, and to scenes featuring a performing monkey, and a bear being baited by dogs for public entertainment. Polke sees it all, while the Grateful Dead limber up and play along.
    Girlfriends (Freundinnen), 1965/66. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext, even in these little films. The exhibition does at time wander between retrospective and visual biography. A slightly reduced version of a show that began at MoMA in New York, the Tate’s version is more coherently arranged, though a degree of incoherence was integral to Polke’s strategy. It did, perhaps, reflect the man. Polke himself collaborated in the very early planning stages of this exhibition, which he devised as being based not on a chronological approach, but on what he called the “problematics” of his art, and proposed what curator Kathy Halbreich describes as a “slightly diabolical” mix of works. Without the problematics, and his diabolic interests in painting’s alchemy and in drugs, the anarchy and order of painting, there is no Polke.

    Polke was nothing but wayward. He played-up the part, in early, hilarious films (one has him up to his well-shod shins in a bowl of water, with cucumbers floating around his trousers), and in photographs of the artist emerging from a giant snakeskin, as though he has been regurgitated, reborn.

    But like the drugs, I feel that Polke’s art is better in somewhat smaller, condensed doses, even if the derangment of the senses, both chemically and optically, were always part of his game. All this could be tiresome, were not Polke’s restless energies capable of throwing up series and groups and individual works of such sublety, unexpected pleasures and ruminative, dark complexities.
    The great Watchtower series from the 198Os, with their structures recalling border posts, concentration camps and hunters’ lookouts, and the huge, resinous paintings with their yawing, curdled images derived from old engravings, seem to be messages from a past that refuses to go away.

    This unfathomable artist was much more than just another painter. His difficulty is also what is so tantalising. Like many of the unstable, fugitive and light-sensitive pigments he sometimes used, and those layers of brown, resinous murk, as soon as you think you see him clearly, his art takes a turn and eludes you once again. His elusiveness was deliberate, a way to stay free.

    Polke’s paintings could be cantankerous and awkward and weirdly ugly, and could also leave you standing on the brink of beauty, wallowing in gorgeous colour. There were surfaces as delicate and ephemeral as scent (using, in one work, a purple dye derived from slugs, painted on silk), and others gloopy with thick polyester resin, which revealed and obscured layers of buried and overpainted imagery, depending on where you stand and how the light falls.

    Experiment and play were at the heart of his art, but were backed up by an encyclopedic and inquiring mind and a curiosity about how paintings have been and might be made. Even his later near-monochromes and a painting of a lump of gold edge towards a kind of magisterial abstraction (it has a grandeur that Robert Motherwell or Helen Frankenthaler could dream of, but never quite achieve). But he never bought into the kitsch of the latter-day sublime.

    Polke reveled in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in. This was real magic. He knew painting was laughable and exhausted, and that that was as the place he had to begin. Polke was never only a painter, even when, and perhaps especially when, he was only painting. It was all a magnificent folly.

    ===

    FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

    October 10, 2014 5:20 pm

    Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

    A retrospective of the maverick German artist seeks to pin down an original, destabilising presence

    Germany and its discontents produced many postwar artists who could have been predicted – Anselm Kiefer with his scorching historical pictures, Georg Baselitz with his angry upside-down figuration, Gerhard Richter with his cool, shape-shifting ironies – and one wild card: the offhand, inconsistent, messy trickster Sigmar Polke.

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    Polke died in 2010 and Alibis, his Tate Modern retrospective, attempts to pin down an original, destabilising presence who was always somewhere else: hiding behind the double exposure of his experimental films; out of his mind on hallucinogenic drugs; or, in a series of vibrant photographs here, posing in swaths of python skin. Thus Polke shed skins, identities and artistic approaches, making style a performative act not an expression of inner necessity.

    Like his fellow German artists in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities, Polke distrusted everything – including his own virtuosity. In the five-metre “Paganini”, based on a 19th-century print of a composer dreaming of the Devil playing to him while he sleeps, Polke considers the relationship between genius and evil: swastikas swarm the surface and a fool juggles skulls that turn into radioactive signs. Polke’s build-up of images overlaid with cartoonish doodles and bravura brushwork collapses figurative into abstract, narrative into chaos.

    Polke made art to fight “the madness of facts”, says his friend, critic Bice Curiger. Born in Silesia in 1941 into a large poor family who migrated to the Rhineland, Polke was initially apprenticed to a Düsseldorf glassmaker, and transparency is really the single leitmotif of his art. The earliest works here such as “Apparition of the Swastika” (1963) feature the Nazi insignia bursting from painterly gouaches, while proto-pop ballpoint pen drawing “Soap” alludes to desires to wash away the past.

    “The Sausage Eater”, from the same year, punctures consumer complacency at Germany’s economic recovery: a tiny anaemic face guzzles, without pleasure, a never-ending line of thin brown links. In Tate’s excellent catalogue, curator Kathy Halbreich compares Polke’s lean, mean sausages to Roy Lichtenstein’s plump, triumphalist “Hot Dog”.

    Polke’s 1960s “raster dot” compositions, painted freehand with perforated metal stencils to transform newspaper snaps into matrices of magnified swimming dots, paralleled Richter’s deadpan blur: both artists aped photomechanical processes to question the reliability of the image. In “Girlfriends” (“Freundinnen”, 1966), “Family”, “Doughnuts” and “Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)”, the dots, vibrating as if in constant motion, were a perfect model for Polke’s oscillating vision of reality and refusal to finalise image or idea.

    His next target was the fixed platitudes of modernism: the parodic minimalist paintings “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black”, “Constructivist”, which mocks his own raster dots, and the irreverent squiggles and loops in “Modern Art”. But it was only when he and Richter went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s (“Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical,” according to Richter) that Polke truly took flight, almost literally in his first film “The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly” (1969), where he attaches strings to his limbs and, giggling, stretches out like Spider-Man.

    Anyone who remembers 1970s Germany, caught between bourgeois boredom and hippy hedonism, will find Tate’s central gallery brilliantly evocative. Resonating throughout are competing soundtracks, featuring the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart from Polke’s weird films “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan”, shot on a road trip and focused on a performing monkey watched by an opium-addled crowd, and “How Long We Are Hesst/Looser”, where footage of Polke clowning about eating eggs is juxtaposed with TV debates on war criminal Rudolf Hess.

    Paintings, too, turn anarchic: paint poured, dripped, scrawled on to fabrics or dot backgrounds and veiled with metallic spray animates the graffiti-like portrait “Dr Berlin” (1969-74) and the hookah-smoking caterpillar and luminous mushrooms in “Alice in Wonderland” (1972), while in “Bowery”, images of the homeless are obscured by folding photographic paper wet with chemicals to produce random spilled abstractions.

    “Poison just crept into my pictures,” Polke said of the 1980s, when the spills enlarged into experiments with meteor dust and purple dye extracted from boiling snails, uranium and arsenic. In the “Watchtower” series, painted with silver nitrate, resin and enamel, Polke appropriated a doubly troubled image – the towers reference the camps as well as the border between East and West Germany – and subjected it to flux and degradation by replacing paint with photographic chemicals. A subtext of the title Alibis is deflection of blame, denial of history. How to paint the unseen? The show’s most extravagantly beautiful paintings, a pair of abstractions where resin combined with silver leaf or meteoric granulate glows gold, are called “The Spirits that Lend Strength are Invisible” (1988).

    I am less persuaded by Polke’s digital works and 1990s use of photocopiers to distort compositions but, in the 2000s, he came full-circle, back to his training with glass, and began creating handmade lenses to overlay painted fabric surfaces. In the masterly “The Illusionist” (2007), semi-transparent layers disrupt overlapping images of a pair of illusionists and a blindfolded woman to produce theatrical enchantment.

    It is a valedictory invitation into the bizarre looking-glass world of an artist who resisted all belief systems, but brought a consistent magic to disaffection and dissonance, and a lightness of being to conceptual painting, which over the decades liberated artists as varied as Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Brown, and makes this show essential viewing for young painters today.

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’, Tate Modern, London, to February 8 2015tate.org.uk

    Images: The Estate of SigmarPolke/ DACS, London/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    ==

    NYMagazine

    Seeing Out Loud: Saltz on MoMA’s Frustratingly Near-Great Sigmar Polke Retrospective

    People look at artworks displayed at a major retrospective of German artist Sigmar Polke entitled 'Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010' during a preview of the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York, USA, 09 April 2014. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art.

    The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling extravagant “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” is really good. How could it not be, with more than 260 works by a great artist on hand? When Polke died at 69 in 2010, John Baldessari observed that “Any one [Polke] move can provide a career for a lesser artist.” The Whitney curator Chrissie Iles said, “I don’t like using terms like ‘master,’ but Polke is a master; he knows it, and we know it.” I think of him as a Rosetta Stone for young artists, one whose material glee, anarchic inventiveness, and hallucinogenic Blakean imagination puts him in the same influential postwar class with Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and his old friend and nemesis Gerhard Richter. He created his own ravishingly visual, impish blends of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Constructivism, and Process Art, all replete with philosophical heft, social bite, and an extraordinary combination of chaos and control.

    It’s a godsend to be able to see all this work he made. Yet “Alibis” is that bitter thing: a show of a great artist with great work that fails to be great. Certainly it’s not nearly as large, focused, or well selected as he deserves. Billed as the first Polke survey to contain all of the media he tackled, “Alibis” takes a rapid-fire, cocktail-shaker, look-how-much-he-did, glance-and-move-on approach. At MoMA we’re set upon by a barrage of art, jam-packed into ten galleries on the second floor. It does deliver the mad atmosphere, breakneck industriousness, and frenetic vortices of Polke’s artistic talent and all that it generated. But when you really stand still in “Alibis,” get quiet within yourself, and look around, there are far too few moments when you’re overcome with the sheer strange acidic gorgeousness of his art.

    Why? Only a little over a third of what’s on hand is painting, and most of it is hung cheek-by-jowl. I love Polke in all the media that he worked in, but without painting as the clear foundational cornerstone of a major retrospective, his accomplishment is shortchanged, and audiences are denied the art’s full brunt and cosmic beauty. MoMA’s lack of curatorial vision and awkward architecture conspire against visual experience. The show needed more space, even if it meant spilling onto another floor, as the Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger shows did. This season, MoMA gave all of PS1 to Mike Kelley, and a Polke show there would have been tremendous. I suspect that the museum is banking on the art world’s deep admiration for Polke to ensure that there won’t be a negative word written about this show.

    The museum is also making gestures toward his kind of anarchy. For example, there are no wall labels*. I eventually adjusted to that, and to relying on the free newsprint guide for details. The uninitiated, however, will find it impossible to follow his development or get any sense of how prescient Polke was throughout his career. Oh, MoMA, your ideas about the language of exhibitions stagger.

    Still, as insufficient as “Alibis” is, nobody should skip it. This is Polke we’re talking about, after all. There are sound pieces, videos, a slide show of old illustrations transformed into bleary beings, and films that let us see the tall grinning bespectacled German doing antic things. (His nearsightedness was exacerbated by his close-in hand-painting of hundreds of thousands of “raster dots” — his gritty, undulating answer to Roy Lichtenstein’s regular mechanical Ben-Day dots.) One huge yellowish beauty is coated in what looks like grime floating in syrupy albumen but that turns out to be meteorite granules floating in resin. Painting as stardust made visible. A nearby dazzler has silver leaf and Neolithic tools in an abstract field of synthetic resin. These doozies are modern cave paintings, abstract nebulas. Don’t miss the best-titled painting in recent art history, Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! — a perfect comment on the absurdity of making art, and on the uncanny feeling artists often have that they aren’t doing it entirely on their own.

    There are scores of prints, drawings, and works on paper including the 1968 watercolor Polke as Drug — Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe, an apt equivalent of what an artist does at work. Nearby is the cartoony Malevich Looks Down on Pollock, a ballpoint-pen sketch of a plain square above a bunch of squiggles on the floor beneath it that offers a wry comment about Polke’s preference for Constructivism over Abstract Expressionism. Polke was among the most innovative photographers ever, and the show includes scores of photos that have been dripped-on, worked-over, cut-up, reprinted, Xeroxed, or otherwise messed with. Near the exhibition’s end are 21 color prints that look like sunbursts on pink grounds. These works were made by exposing the paper to a chunk of uranium that Polke kept in a lead box in his studio. There are weird mechanisms, like Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another, which consists of a wooden stool with a motor that does just what the title says, as if a lost testicle is perpetually circling its mate, trying to create a spark or break away from its gravitational field.

    If you want to avoid being bombarded, I recommend standing in front of the wall with three of the Heron paintings from 1968 and 1969. Beautiful birds in arabesque lines with kinetic reeds and lyrical water, salmon-colored outlines and pale-blue hues: They all merge with the grids of patterned fabric that they’re painted on. This is kitsch as exquisiteness, wallpaper as tour de force, a shattering of molds about what is decoratively cliché and what is painterly grace. One of the five mid-’80s paintings of watch towers is done in enamel on bubble wrap, so the image floats free, the stretcher bars show through, and the painting takes on an entirely new material and spiritual presence somewhere between ectoplasmic apparition and UFO or Roman wall painting. Other paintings of towers, which could depict concentration camps or just forest-ranger stations, are rendered in either silver oxide, polymer, dry pigment, silver nitrate, or natural resins, and show us a colorist as melodious as the great Veronese, one who is as pictorially complex as Rubens.

    In fact, Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

    The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world.

    Which is one reason that every artist needs to see and spend time in this show. Not just to bask in the baffling ecstasies and polymorphous crucible of his art. They need to realize how many young painters now suffer from what I call the Polke Effect, ignorantly or mindlessly repeating his gestures without transforming them into anything remotely original. Perhaps this show will school a few of them, and make them take off their water wings and go into the deep end of art’s ocean, where Polke spent his entire career developing a beautiful, gigantic new Boschian cosmography.

    *This sentence has been corrected.

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