Sunday, July 06, 2014
Monday, June 16, 2014
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Monday, May 12, 2014
Jeannene Przyblyski, want to look at the questions of novelty and newness and their relationship to contemporary art practice very selectively, from two different perspectives.
From that of China and that of Cuba. And, even more selectively, looking at a very narrow range of work. So, I'm not going to encompass the whole of contemporary practice in either China or Cuba.
What is interesting to me is to look very carefully, within a broader discourse about contemporary art, within a broader sense that contemporary art has become a global practice that there is no longer one, that it's no longer possible to argue for one capitol city of contemporary art in the way that it could be argued, at one point, that Paris was the capitol city of Modernism, and then that capitol city shifted to New York.
That's certainly one of the dominant narratives of Modern art. But, instead, that contemporary art in a global economy is a distributed practice with many networked nodes that are linked, in fact, by the practice of large biennial and other sorts of regular international exhibitions that bring the work of artists from many different countries together. And that not only have artists become international, but also many, many nations have recognized engagement with contemporary art as a part of a larger practice of advertising and claiming a cultural position in contemporary times.
So, both Havana, in Cuba, and Shanghai, in China, sponsor major biennials. And that's an effort, quite consciously, on the part of governments, to claim culture as a part of their contemporary national standing in a global economy.
The Huang Yong Ping's, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for, 2 Minutes. And we looked at this work very briefly, and in one way, it could be taken as a kind of parable on what it is like to simply mash up two distinctive and distinguished art histories into one sort of undifferentiated mass.
So, the artist has placed a survey book of Chinese art and a survey book of Western art into a washing machine for two minutes, and displays the results heaped on top of a glass plate that is supported by a tea crate.
So, almost as if the ensuing sculptural, pulpy mass is ready to be packed up and shipped around in this global art economy, at the same time that the tendency of paper history is to be both authoritative and also to disintegrate, and the tendency of language to be impenetrable, sometimes, across cultural differences, I think is also dramatized by this piece.
So, I think that the artist's work is meant to a little bit ironic, and to mobilize its criticality through a kind of irony about the kind of, both the legibility and the illegibility of language, the authority and the lack of authority and insufficiency of histories, and both the kind of potentials and also the pitfalls of understanding art in a global context.
So, it's a pretty economical piece that's doing a lot of critical work at the same time.
Certainly, for artists of Huang Yong Ping's generation, the transformation from a closed country, to increasing contact with the West was very much a part of the formation of their identity as artists.
We're looking, now, at a painting by a contemporary Chinese oil painter, Ma Gang, of a meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Nixon. The painting dates from 2009. We see a Chinese oil painter, trained in the academic tradition, taking on the techniques of major historical portraiture to document the contact between China and the United States. And to do it in a Western format so, a format that isn't really mixing languages, but is instead displaying a great investment in and a great fluency in the techniques of Western oil painting. And choosing them, in this case, to sort of do the work of history painting from a Chinese perspective.
What is it like to witness some of the great encounters of the history of the 20th century and to memorialize them in a way that great encounters throughout the history of the Modern and contemporary periods have been memorialized.
So Ma Gang might be said to be on the side of representing international and cross-cultural encounter in a seamless way, in a formal, diplomatic mode. It is, indeed, in that way, work that is very much done at the service of the state, and in honor of and as a part of official culture, much in the same way as David would have painted the coronation of Emperor Napoleon, for example.
And interesting, as well, in that regard. But let's move from that to another take on cross-cultural encounter. This is one of Ai Weiwei's notorious urns painted with the Coca-Cola logo, this one from 2010. And they're works in which he takes examples of Chinese antiquities of these large pottery urns and he emblazens them with the immediately recognizable as both American and pervasive logo of Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola, I think, has a particular fascination for international artists as an emblem of the United States, precisely because so much of the marketing of Coca-Cola throughout the '70s and '80s and '90s, for those of you who can remember it, was about it being a mechanism that united the world.
And Ai Weiwei takes that ideology and myth of unification through the mass consumption of commodities straight on, as a very pointed component of the process of the opening up of the boarders between China and the West.
It was not only a function of diplomatic missions and major occurrences of state, but equally significant, perhaps, was the moment when McDonald's, for example, first appeared outside of the Tiananmen Gates of Beijing, and that sort of sense that a change was really in the air, because Western commodities were to be available and the most stereotypical of Western commodities were to be available in the East.
So, what is it like to take an example of the great and long cultural history of China and deface it, in fact, with an American, imported trademark. It is meant to be a provocative gesture, much in the same way that Duchamp's marking of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee, was a provocative gesture. And, in fact, I think Ai Weiwei is very much an artist in the Duchampian mode. And there's a lot that's been written about these works, not only in terms of Ai Weiwei's defacement of Chinese antiquities, but also in terms of his willful destruction of some of these antiquities as a part of his art practice, as well. Let's place Ai Weiwei's Duchampian gesture against the work of another artist, Pan Gongkai, who is actually the president of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
And this is important to think about, not only because Pan Gongkai was born during a time when China was effectively cut off from much of the West and turning inwards on itself, and its own government, and its own building of a new society, but because he came of age during the Cultural Revolution, which was a part of the rule of Mao in which the broad learning of intellectual history, various cultural traditions, being an artist and an intellectual in general was fiercely proscribed by the state. And in which a very repressive culture of social sort of retraining was imposed, especially on those people who were children of intellectuals and academics who came from academic and intellectual backgrounds.
In fact, Pan was not able to finish his schooling because he was sent out in the countryside to work in agriculture instead. And much of his return to culture was bound up in access to the West, and in puzzling out the differences, for himself, and the points of contact between Chinese aesthetics and Chinese philosophy of art, and Modern aesthetics and Modern philosophies of art in the Western mode.
So, in this very large-scale installation work, we see him thinking through those things. The work is a very, very large-scale installation piece that begins with a mural covered with gestural brush strokes in the mode of Chinese brush painting. And onto that mural is projected a stream of melting English language that processes through the philosophy of Modern art.
So, it has this marvelous time-based experience, in this installation, of watching English language dissolve almost into snow across the surface of a painting that evokes Chinese tradition, and an almost elegiac and sort of contemplative sense of both the sufficiencies and insufficiencies of that cultural contact, and the process of putting a new contemporary-artistic language back together, in the face of both.
We are looking at a work by another artist who is actually at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Xu Bing who also spent a great deal of time in the United States and, in fact, was recognized with a MacArthur fellowship for his work. This is one of his most important major works, Book from the Sky, a work that he did between 1987 and 1991.
Again, it's a large-scale, installation-based work, a work that takes language head on in the production of an installation space. In this case, Xu Bing has made up his own language of invented characters, and uses them to fill books and scrolls and panels that fill the installation space, and cause the viewer to contemplate the sort of muteness that results, really, from being in the presence of so much language and so much illegibility, at one time.
Xu Bing certainly felt this, this sort of tension and frustration of the relationship between the modes of expression he had available to him, his travels between the East and West, the difficulties of learning the new language of English to operate in American society for the time that he was here, the process of going back to China and finding the radical transformations of Chinese society and Chinese cities that were a part of its globalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
So that the relationship between traditional culture, the culture of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the culture of globalized China, were experienced in a kind of, again, kind of chaotic and jumbled way. And that's an exact quote from Xu Bing.
He talks about "our lives and cultural background" as a "jumbled knot of socialism, the Cultural Revolution, the Reform Period, Westernization" and modernism. "All of these complexities are reflected quite naturally in my work." So that the work of art becomes the work of figuring out one's place and one's possible modes of expression in a radically transformed culture and society.
The international politics of Cuba and the United States present a different set of challenges for contemporary artists, because this sort of porousness of the relationship between the United States and Cuba was regulated not only on the American side, with the U.S. embargo, but also on the Cuban side, as well, with a great deal of concern that, in order for the revolution to take hold, Cubans needed to stay close to home, to concentrate on what was going on in their own country. And hence, travel is greatly restricted, on the part of the Cuban government, as well, and has only recently, in fact, begun to be those restrictions have only recently begun to be relaxed.
So, one finds contemporary artists understanding, in a way, that their marketplace is international and global, and yet their own situation may be either restricted, or provisionally allowed, or nomadic, or exiled, certainly a complex relationship to the country of their birth.
So, here we see this work, again, José Angel Toirac's, Marlboro, from his series, Tiempos Nuevos, New Times, from 1996. This sort of ironic trying on of Fidel as the Marlboro Man.
And in both cases-- in both the case of China and of Cuba, in terms of contemporary practice one does see, in a kind of pop-ish mode, a kind of processing of the iconic identities and iconic brands, if you will. For those two countries, those brands seem are oftentimes organized around the dominant political figures. So, a kind of processing and reprocessing of images of Mao is very much a part of one sort of trajectory of contemporary Chinese art, and a processing of reprocessing of images of Fidel Castro is very much a trajectory of one aspect of Cuban contemporary art, as well.
And this, again, places us in that kind of pop-ish Duchampian realm of questioning the identity of brands and the contact between nations as a matter of appropriation and re-positioning imagining Fidel Castro as the Marlboro man, but the horse being the horse of the conquistador and not the horse of the American cowboy.
That's not such a different strategy, in some ways, than we saw with Ai Weiwei. And so I want to complicate that version of contemporaneity with the work of another Cuban-born artist who lives in the United States, Tony Labat, who moved from Miami to San Francisco and has taught, for many years, at the San Francisco Art Institute. And is actually a dear colleague and friend.
And so, I know quite a lot about Tony's background and, you know, I'm going to call him Tony rather than Labat.
He was born in Cuba. And when he was in his early teens, he and his mother left his father and moved to the United States, as part of the great sort of exiling and flight of Cuban nationals to the United States, in the early 1960s. And much of his work has been, then, about the sort of interrogation of the political iconography of the U.S. and Cuba about the sensations of displacement across language and across cultures.
So, we're looking at this work from his, Frankenstein Series, of Karl Marx, from 2007, in which he has taken on these silkscreen images of Marx, as a preeminent figure of communist political ideology intervened in those silk screened images, with both hands masking the figures, and also these kind of cross-cutting monochromatic bars, which parse Marx into quadrants and suggest that he could almost be seen as a kind of composite figure, an exquisite corpse, if you will, in the surrealist mode, and under willful construction.
That is, taken apart and put back together, if you will, according to political whim, until it becomes a version of itself very far from its original. In a very different way, that perhaps has its relationship to Duchamp and the notions of novelty, reproduction and appropriation that Duchamp was so interested in, but also takes its distance, as well, is Tony's recent work for the Havana Biennial in 2012. It's called, Irregular Encounter: Leveling the Field, and it was an installation-based, participatory, social, interactive work in which Tony had a pool table, a billiards table, made in the shape of the island of Cuba, so, in the shape of the Cuban nation, and invited people to play pick-up games of pool in a kind of a combination viewing stand, somewhat café setting where you could you could get a beer and buy some cigarettes and play pool, or watch people play pool, as the installation.
It's a very interesting work on a number of levels. As I said, it kind of references Duchamp, Duchamp famously played chess as a form of art making, or as an alternative to formalized art practice, and here we have the game of billiards substituted.
We have the sort of illogic of playing a mathematical game, which is all about calculating angles, on an irregular playing field, a field that maps the borders of Cuba, and also talks about all the various sort of sub rosa and underground economical ways that Cubans have organized their everyday life so as to work with, and work around the prescriptions of both the U.S. embargo and the culture of regulation and rationing that has been so much a part of Cuban economic life.
So, how to get people to play with the dilemmas of their own relationship to nation, state, politics, migration, immigration, displacement, and nomadism, that's all bound up in this particular irregular encounter.
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Jeannene Przyblyski, talked about the conditions of Modernity, to specifically locate them within a discussion of the experience of novelty and newness, and then talk a little bit about how that relates to art practice and the way that artists might choose to position themselves in the world.
The Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's, View of the Boulevard du Temple, from 1939, one of, we think, the first photographs that was ever taken. And we looked at this photograph as an example of the experience of a kind of optical repositioning of human relationship to the world. That is to say that, through a conjunction of optics and chemistry, the way, that is, light is refracted through a lens, and the way that the effects of light are captured on sensitized chemical materials, we have what was seen, at the time, as a more exact and real transcription of the world. And it wasn't just that it was more exact and real, but that it allowed us to see and experience things that the naked eye, alone, couldn't see and experience.
So, the difference between certain kinds of stillness and movement, the way that the photographic eye or the human eye captures movement and understands and registers movement, or does not, and the way in which a sensation of the human visual command of the world might be extended through photography.
So, the view out the window, a fleeting moment in the course of human experience, captured and preserved forever on the photographic plate. And the dream that photography could extend one's knowledge and experience of the world in all sorts of foreseen and unforeseen ways.
The great engraving by Maurisset called, Daguerreotypomania, from December 1839, I love because it demonstrates just how quickly photography was assimilated into the collective unconsciousness of a modernizing society. And that's maybe a big way of saying that one of the interesting things about photography is that people knew what to do with it even before it was invented. And so its assimilation into the way people thought about how they knew and experienced the world was very quick. So, we see this popular caricaturist, in the mass press, imagining that photographers might go up in the air in balloons and allow human beings to see a god-like view of down below from above. The Google view, if you will.
We see an imagination that photography will put an end to the work of engravers and illustrators. And there's a series of illustrators who are hanging themselves in response to the invention of photography. We see people flocking to the portrait studios to have their pictures taken, and we see all of this conjoined with other new inventions of the time that radically transformed the way that we understood humans' ability to traverse time and space. So, a locomotive steam engine going across the background of the picture, steamboats traversing the lake in the distance. And this sense that we were poised in the 19th century, in modernizing and industrializing countries in particular on the brink of a new experience of the understanding of cities, the understanding of how quick change could happen, and the understanding of how great a human being's reach over the world around them might be.
And we can see a little bit about how artists in other media try to respond to that experience of rapid technological change and the impacts that it had on our ways of knowing and understanding and experiencing the world. And, certainly, Impressionism is an excellent example of that, because I don't believe that impressionist painters lessened their grasp and their interrogation of reality as a result of the invention of photography. I think they were challenged by photography to think about reality in new and specifically optical ways, so that Monet's interest in capturing the effects of light, the ephemeralness of the Gare Saint-Lazare which was one of the new train stations enclosed in a glass arcade that were built in the 19th century in France, is all about exploring not the heaviness and solidity and permanence of the locomotive, but of exploring those kinds of effects of merely optical sensation reflected, refracted light, the smoke from the locomotive smokestack, the movement of people in a public urban space as being optical effect.
And that is very much born of the influence of photography, and born of the influence of all sorts of new technologies in the 19th century, including train travel, that made the world seem smaller because distances could be covered more quickly.
And also more, for lack of a better word more analytical, at the same time. Because the other thing that train travel and photography did, in different ways, was alter people's quantitative experience of time.
Which is to say that photography depended upon a more exact, increasingly exact understanding of exposure and developing times.
And, on the other hand, successful networks of train systems depended upon countries adopting a standardized measurement for time. Because if all the train conductors and engineers weren't moving according to the same timetable, well, you can imagine what would happen, it just simply wouldn't work. Everybody would crash, and so a uniform, standardized experience of time was a product of the 19th century invention of all sorts of modernizing technologies. At the same time that people's understanding of the world in the 19th century was being radically transformed by these new technologies, their understandings of how they related to each other were being transformed by new economies of working, new demands for labor force that altered and impacted all kinds of relationships and, most particularly, the relationships between men and women.
So, when we look at a painting like Édouard Manet's, Olympia, from 1863, which, I'm sorry that this is only the first time we're seeing it, it's a painting that I hope reminds you a little bit of those odalisque postures that we saw in Carrie Mae Weems's photographs. And, for sure, Carrie Mae Weems had this canonical image in mind when she was posing her young models for that photograph. When we look at a photograph like this, it is all about referencing tradition, that is to say, the tradition of the reclining female nude that could be traced back through the 16th and 17th century to the work of artists like Titian and Velázquez that Monet would've admired very, very much.
And, on the other hand, demanding that tradition of a genre of painting, a formal genre, the reclining female nude, needed to be radically transformed by the experience of the contemporary moment.
So, we don't feel like we're looking at some mythological goddess or some generic figure, we feel like we're looking at a specific woman who's looking back at us in a rather confrontational way. We know the name of the model. Her name was Victorine Meurent, and she was a model that appears repeatedly, in a number of guises and masquerades, almost Cindy Sherman-esque, in Manet's work. And she is a model who appears, here, as someone who is even more explicitly awaiting her male customer, and sort of taking the measure of their worth, than the barmaid in Manet's painting, Bar at the Folies-Bergère. She's attended to by a black female servant. And that raises questions about racial hierarchies, as well as gender hierarchies, in 19th century France, and it also signals those other kinds of migrations and territorializations that were a part of colonial and imperial movements of the 19th century by which European nations, in particular, expanded their reach to Africa and to the Americas.
And did so, in part, because they were enabled by all these new modes of technological mastery of time and space.
Betty Boop is a sister, if you will, in some ways, of Manet's Olympia. It's another version of the Modern woman, eroticized, and Betty's certainly curvaceous and oddly made-up for someone who is pictured, here, as an ostensibly young female character. She is located within an immigrant culture in the United States so, just as her inventors the Fleischer brothers and character artist Grim Natwick were part of an American migration in the time between the World Wars in Europe, an American migration specifically from the Slavic countries, and very often, of Jewish peoples, as well. She's also this sort of uncertain marker of the Modern woman's place in the world.
And the early 20th Century is a time that sees movements towards rights to vote, and rights to increasingly equal roles of citizenship in the United States and in the European nations.
It's a time in which women claiming the ability to own their sexuality in public was very much a part of a general sense of cultural uncertainty that marked the times between the Wars.
And so, Betty Boop's novelty and her modernity are all bound up in trying to puzzle out and reposition everyone in a time of uncertain social hierarchies and uncertain relationships between people.
This does, indeed, have a nationalistic context, as well, and a violent context, as well, because all of those technologies that could be used to enhance human reach over the world, to master time and space, could also be used to conquer time and space and to contest ownership of time and space.
So, war becomes highly technologized and highly mechanized in the 19th and 20th century, and the experience of devastation that could be wrought by war ratcheted up to an even more massive scale, at the same time.
And so, this is a work that we've also seen before, Pablo Picasso's, Guernica, from 1937, an image of protest in response to one of the first saturation bombings in the history of military warfare. And we need to have this view of mechanized and technologically leveraged warfare in view, as well as the expression of human outrage against it.
Because certainly the capacity for destructiveness is the other side of the fascination with newness and the valuation of newness and novelty and technological invention and technological progress that informs the 19th and 20th century.
That growing understanding of humankind's capacity for self-destruction is accompanied by a growing awareness of its mediation through technology.
So, it's important to know that, Guernica, was shown at the World's Fair at a moment where these large, state-organized expositions were a place to bring all of human innovation and all of human productivity together and put it on spectacular display.
That's the place where this work was first exhibited, even as, when we turn to something like Martha Rosler's series of photo montages called, Bringing the War Home, from 1967 to 1972, we see the thoughtful way in which Rosler is using collage to dramatize the ways in which a media culture, enabled by television, brings the wars of the 20th century into everyone's living room, into everyone's living room, as experiences that are greatly disturbing and graphic.
And yet, because of their locatedness within an everyday domestic interior and we have this sort of amazing Modern housewife with her vacuum cleaner slung over her shoulder sort of like a military weapon, wielding it against the brocade drapery even as the drapery's pulled back to see American soldiers in the battlefields of Vietnam.
When we look at these images, we're being asked to confront the duality of the celebration of newness and innovation that remains a part of contemporary culture to this day.
The media and television and social media today has had the effect of making the world even smaller, and has also exacerbated the degree to which people have become increasingly habituated to interacting with each other, and knowing about each other, and relating to each other through commodified images rather than through direct social interaction.
We are mostly in an experience of mediation these days. Anyone who thinks of being in a restaurant and watching everybody on their portable electronic devices talking to somebody else who's somewhere else, at the same time that they're with their family and friends, just understands what a powerful thrall media culture holds over us.
So, all of these technological developments have shrunk the world at the same time that they've prosthetically enhanced human reach over the world, enabled nearly instantaneous communication, enabled us to, actually, in some ways, feel a great deal of empathy with people that are very distant from us.
We can think of any number of natural disasters, over the course of the last decades, in which great efforts at offering relief, and help, and financial assistance, and other forms of assistance, had been mobilized through the media, for a greater good. And, at the same time, we can all begin to enumerate all the ways in which these new technological innovations and new ways of expanding human power, in real, physical ways have been used to great catastrophe.
So, what is the artist's role in all of this?
Is the role of the artist, in Modern times and in contemporary culture, to further the culture, or to question it?
There's no right answer.
And this work is ongoing.
So, how do you choose to position yourself as an artist, as a creative thinker, and as a feeling person, in relationship to that?
I think novelty for novelty's sake, more often than not, turns out to be novelty in the service of a dominant power structure.
Our desire for the latest technology increases wealth for a few.
Video games that are used to recruit for the military are another example in which the efficacy of the design and the seductiveness of these new forms of interaction pretty readily yield to uses that reinforce the dominant conditions of national antagonism, of a militarized society, and of confrontation, that inform much of our interactions and much of our anxieties about contemporary life, as well.
So, that's one set of possibilities that artful work works in the service of reinforcing dominant belief systems, mainstream ideologies, and habitual confrontations.
Another way of thinking about it is this that the acknowledgement of the experience of an ongoing iterative process of newness requires that artists continually interrogate these emergent conditions of contemporaneity, and continually improvise new solutions to addressing them critically. That's another form of newness.
Well, however you decide to position yourself in all of this, your choices can't help but take part in this larger dialogue that consistently meets contemporary experience with a range of solutions that draw upon the immediate past, and then try to find ways to keep going.
Try to find ways to adapt what we know to the conditions of uncertainty that currently confront us.
Jeannene Przyblyski, claims that In the Modern and contemporary period, in terms of – isms. there is one – ism that we should perhaps confront directly, since, still, many of its assumptions inform our contemporary understanding of art today.
And that -ism is Modernism as a whole. The image of Alfred H. Barr's wonderful and terrible diagram for the exhibition catalogue “Cubism and Abstract Art”, in 1936, that set out to try to make sense of the real welter of influences and interventions in art practice that characterize the late 19th and early 20th century, and to do it in such a way that it conformed to a progressive notion of history.
That is to say that history, in teleological terms, means one thing after another, and that those things hopefully add up to progress, add up to a place that values improvement and what comes next, rather than tradition and what has been known.
And, in that sense, also values novelty and newness, as well. So, all of the sometimes contrary and competing influences and interventions in Modernism, in Barr's view, boiled down to two possibilities in 1936. And they are sort of reassuring possibilities, in a weird way, for people who want certainties.
That is to say that he saw art moving toward abstraction in either case but a kind of geometric investigation of abstraction, on the one hand, or a kind of non-geometrical anthropomorphic investigation of abstraction, on the other hand.
This is an artificially neatened up version of history. It's a version of history that privileges one particular perspective, that of European and, by the mid-20th century, American artistic production and aesthetic points of view. And it's worth saying that it is not a version of art history that would, by and large, sit easily with artists. And so, it's not surprising that we find, in relatively short order, the American artist Ad Reinhardt, whose production included both abstract painting, and a pretty aggressive and pretty interesting practice as a kind of caricaturist, illustrator, commentator, in visual form, on the circumstances of Modern art production and reception in the United States and elsewhere. Precisely as a rejoinder to Barr's diagram, Ad Reinhardt pictures modern art as a sort of really unruly ancestral family tree, with its roots in various categories of production, with Braque, Matisse, and Picasso becoming the strong trunk from which many branches and leaves might ensue. But all of that is weighted down with preconceptions of what art ought to and ought not be, with the interventions of a public that is more or less sympathetic or questioning.
And those are the circumstances of the value of newness and novelty, as well, that an artist working to further traditional conventions might expect a comprehending and mutually reinforcing relationship with his or her audience or community.
But an artist and art movements that are always looking to what's next, always looking to the future, might then reasonably expect to encounter, from time to time, uncertainty or derision. And, certainly, Matisse was burned in effigy at the Armory show in 1913. And some of Barr's efforts, while they can seem really flattening and homogenizing, were also efforts to diffuse that kind of tension around Modern art practice.
Well, so what is the self-identified Modern artist to do in the face of the apparent contradiction between these two versions of newness?
On the one hand, the notion of advanced thinking, of advanced practice, of being ahead of the game, of being always on the lookout for the newest rejoinder in a grand conversation about the conditions of contemporary art. And on the other hand, mere novelty, the newest or merely fashionable as nothing more than wanting the latest automobile model or make, or the latest cut of a suit in a department store.
In that context, abstraction takes on a new value because abstraction is precisely not the language of advertising and the language of novelty.
The language of advertising and the language of everyday novelty is the language of an increasingly hyper realism, the language of commercials, the representational language that will show you a bottle of beer, for example, and every single drop of moisture clinging to that ice cold bottle of beer, to make you want it even more.
So, if a kind of hyperreality is the language of novelty, then abstraction becomes, in response, the preferred language of advanced art.
But it's not sort of like, Abstraction, it's worth saying, is equally hard to organize as a visual field, and especially as a painting, and it needs to have its own kind of motor force and its own set of questions.
So, one of those questions might be the very basic question of how do you keep a mere novelty out of the frame, especially as it is manifested through the language of realistic, illusionistic representation, when every time you put a mark on a canvas, you create a figure ground relationship?
You're almost always verging on the realm of representation and, in fact, it is a really hard thing to make a purely abstract painting — a painting that doesn't set up some kind of relationship of being something.
And so that's why, when we look at — this work is, perhaps, one of the grandest and notorious examples of mid-century Modernism.
This is Jackson Pollock's, No. 1, 1950. Lavender Mist, it's also called, given that title by the critic Clement Greenberg, who was a great interlocutor of Jackson Pollock's work.
We can see these paintings as, on the one hand, a sort of random collection of drips and drops, and that's certainly how they were often satirized in the press.
Satirizing of Modernist practices, 'Oh, my child could do that.' 'Oh, anybody could do that.' 'Oh, this seems to be some kind of prank that's being played on us by those cranky and arrogant Modern artists.'
But on the other hand, one could look at these paintings as precisely records of the great effort it takes to cancel figuration, to negate it within a practice of painting.
So that all of that web-like criss-crossing of schemes, of painted drips and lines, can be seen as an effort to repeatedly cancel out those figure-ground relationships until they become absolutely undecipherable and untangleable, until they become a kind of immeasurable and all-encompassing, all-over kind of experience.
So, on the one hand, one can read a painting like, Lavender Mist, as a really principled and labored rejection of the conditions of representational painting, an effort to absolutely refuse to give the viewer a thread of illusionism by which to anchor themselves in certainty in confrontation with this painted field, and to insist, instead, that it was the absolute unrepeatableness of this performance, in many ways, it's absolute boundedness to the unique hand and body of the individual artist, that gave the painting its authority as abstraction.
And, on the other hand, that sort of relationship to newness was carefully managed by the artist himself.
And we see it as nowhere more apparent than in the very well - known series of photographs of Jackson Pollock that were done by the photographer Hans Namuth.
Photographs that insistently picture Pollock as a heroic loner, isolated in his studio, doing battle with the canvas as if it is a battlefield lowered to the ground to be traversed and subdued by the artist with the mere materials of stick-like brush and bucket of house paint.
And yet, after this battle, when the painting is elevated to the wall, a wondrous kind of optical field of infinite complexity remains for the viewer's experience.
Yes, but that other side of newness — in mere novelty and kitsch, haunts Pollock's work, as well. It haunts it in the incessant caricaturing of his practice that is a part of the popular press.
This is another confrontation between the human subject and Pollock's painted fields, not the artist alone in his studio at work, the painting in process on the floor, but the painting finished, installed in the gallery and become a backdrop for a photo shoot by Vogue magazine in 1951.
But why does an artist and his dealer present their work in this way?
Well, because, on the one hand, paintings – Modernist or not – are luxury objects in a modern economy. And it takes a moneyed consumer to go into the upper and high-end galleries of New York, or Paris, or Mexico City, or Beijing, or Shanghai, and come out with a purchase of substance.
So you have to cultivate those viewers, and Pollock was willing to do so.
So, this in some ways, I have to give credit to the art historian T.J. Clark, who introduced me to these photographs, and whose work on Jackson Pollock I find really important. He said, 'This is Modernism's worst nightmare, in a way”, that after all of that principaled grappling with the very premises of painting, it becomes sort of mere wallpaper for the fashionable set. And it does its job pretty well, in that regard. That, on the one hand, this is a painting that could stun the perplexed viewer into a kind of fury over what art might be.
'Does art amount to this?'
And, on the other hand, it can go quietly into defeat, right?
The mural wallpaper for this lovely model with her amazing architectural dress that's colors turn out, lo and behold, to be quite complementary to Pollock's, Autumn Rhythm.
What is it to be?
Is Modern art yet another form of novelty?
Or can it take its principal distance from precisely the world that it must engage in to perpetuate itself in terms of the artist's career?
It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the rejoinder to abstract expressionism as a form of Modernist practice will constitute a fork in the road for Modernism, if you will.
That, on the one hand, some artists will entrench in more extreme examples of abstract work, more conceptual practices that principally refuse to create high- value objects in their wake. And on the other hand, a group of artists that will plot themselves, for lack of a better term, right in the midst of this dilemma about the kitschy and the commodity form, and begin to interrogate the status of those images in terms of both process and practice, and in terms of subject matter. And, probably, the example of that that first comes to mind is the work of Andy Warhol.
And this is his, 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, from 1962, a work that says, 'Well, if art is due to be wallpaper, if there is no holding at bay the relationship between elite culture and popular culture, then I am going to put that dilemma squarely on the wall.' 'I am going to create works that are not about the celebration of individual creative genius and uniqueness, but about the factory-like replication of familiar forms.' 'I am going to refuse, almost insistently, to have that kind of existentialist artist's struggling, heroic personality that was so much a part of the discourse of abstract expressionism, and I am going to fantasize that I could be merely a machine.' 'And I am going to refuse to believe that I could make an end run around kitsch, but, instead, I am going to confront the viewers squarely with it again and again and again, in nearly endless repetition, to almost the point of numbness.' I do think we can look at Warhol's, Soup Cans, as one rejoinder to Modernism's bad dream, that is to say, the image of the fashion shoot in front of the heroic abstract expressionist's paintings.
I also want to turn around and ask a different question of that image of, Vogue magazine, of the image of the female model in front of abstract expression. But I want to say this: certainly, another dilemma that has been much written about, in terms of the rhetoric of abstract expressionism, was the urgency with which it aligned abstract expressionist process with a mode of creativity that was insistently gendered as male.
And I think we can see that in the real gender tension between the Namuth photograph of Pollock as a kind of heroiccreator whose practice is almost a form of prolifically and generatively ejaculating on the canvas, the brush being a sort of extension of the phallus, and, on the other hand, the negation of those modernist heroics by the positioning of the body of the female model in front of the painting, which neutralizes it as a kind of wallpaper.
There were other female interrogators and female tests of abstract expressionist rhetoric, and I think Pollock's wife, the artist Lee Krasner, was perhaps one of the most illuminating, and yet sometimes overlooked.
The painting by Lee Krasner, Three in Two, from 1956, which I think is an address to abstract expressionism and the question of how to deconstruct figuration as a practice of abstraction, is an address to Pollock's testing of himself against the work of the artist that he revered as a kind of master Pablo Picasso.
And I think this is Krastner's address to Picasso, as well. And I think, in a strange way, also, it's a deconstruction of that fashion imagery, that test of the female proximity to abstraction as a kind of undoing of it's painterly agency.
And so, Three in Two, is a work that allows its traces of figuration, its traces of relationship to the body, to be seen and yet not precisely named. It allows the painting to exist in a process of simultaneous becoming and undoing at the same time.
A becoming of abstraction, and an undoing of figuration. It plots it's art historical linkage to Picasso's great unfinished work, the Demoiselles d'Avignon, and in it's fleshy tones and the kind of pointed triangulation of the composition, it seems, to me, to have a lot to do with the Demoiselles d'Avignon and, instead, it asks that confrontation between representation and illusion, figuration and abstraction, fermininity and masculinity, to be understood as completely contained and renegotiated again and again on the surface of the painting as a matter of process, and not as a matter of a circuitry of looks and desires.
And that circuitry of looks and desires is the circuitry of commodity fetishism, and of the desire for novelty. And that is not, most vehemently, what this painting is about.