I have been a painter for about 15 years.
The earliest fine art pieces I produced were made in a conscious effort to get beyond the elegant graphic fashion line that I had been trained to do many years before. One of my first large paintings, the two-panel “The Righteous Enter the City”, is full of angst, irony and motion. “Two Figures”, a large oil, is a grotesque presentation of calculated human cruelty to the “other”. “The Bound Ones # ?”, one of a series of six monoprints and another example of early work, is a visualization of brutally silenced political protest.
Angst has a limited life, however, unless you insist on being seriously and continuously unhinged. This is exhausting. Luckily, several years after this angry period, humor surfaced. Strange looking dogs got into my work, including dogs in heaven, dogs ascending to heaven, great cosmic dogs, and portraits of dogs. “A Very Important Dog with Solid Gold Balls” is from this period.
Dogs and people have much in common, it seems to me. They usually prefer to live together in social hierarchies with definite pecking orders. They choose a leader, and sometimes they run amok. So, dogs were a fine way to illustrate the behavior and beliefs of people.
For the past several years I have been working in a new direction, following a childhood fascination with the non-objective paintings of Jackson Pollock. Yes, I was a peculiar kid, quiet and observant and very DEEP.
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Twentieth-Century contemporary art has historically used the obtuse to express the intangible. In painting, this has meant that image, color, shape and line suggest something else; a way to get at the viewer in a sideways manner, as versus a full frontal attack.
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Art can have the power to slip into the mind of the viewer and change thinking or enhance vision. Is this done by manipulation? Absolutely. At least, manipulation is part of the process. While creating, the artist dances between deliberate manipulative choices and sub-conscious expression. Feelings are part of the whole package, but so is experience with color and technique and line, a familiarity with art history, an intermittent and lively internal dialogue with old-dead-usually-white-guys-famous-artists, and an ability to look at your on-going work objectively and subjectively at virtually the same time.
Some days I dance with the best, and other days I paint big heaps of steaming turgid dung. Ignore the above paragraph. It is closer to the truth to say that everybody works in their own way. Mine demands caffeine. A healthy ego is useful. Coffee is essential.
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For some time now, Art has been mauled about by the Politically Correct and the Socially Aware Propagandists. The critical constraints of these groups demand that the artist display seriousness of purpose and total dedication to portraying the inherent evil of others. These two criteria are essential in determining if art and artist are acceptable. Identification of the artist as a victim adds luster to PC-SAP art done by any artist who is do designated. Artist victimization is automatically conferred or can be claimed if you are 1) the correct gender, or 2) belong to a PC ethnic group. This means that if you seek and receive appreciation as a PC-SAP artist, or if you are summarily adopted into the ranks, it will be a given that any work that you make thereafter will be quite wonderful. It is also a given that any work not created by those so anointed is deeply suspect.
This is silly.
Art that transfigures us has many sources. Consider “Guernica”, a deeply moving painting, the theme of which is human cruelty. A propensity towards brutality is seemingly endemic in human nature. It is not limited by gender or ethnicity or ideology. “Guernica” is a monumental creation because it is equal to its theme. The fact that it was painted by a wily misogynist womanizer has no relevance whatsoever to the tremendous moral value of this work. The only fact that matters is that Picasso was up to it.
“Pfffftttt” to PC.
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The individual struggles of those artists termed Abstract Expressionists are plainly visible in much of their work. Perhaps some of this need to make such raw art was a knee-jerk responses to a pervasive American distrust of art as frivolous, and artists as con artists. Making art was not seen as Real work for Real Men.
Women artists were puzzling aberrations and mostly immune from consideration.
Even though Abstract Expressionism was extraordinarily important in shaping the future directions of international art, AE itself was of short duration. Pop Art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, the multitude of -isms that have shot up like nettles since AE, quickly supplanted it.
One idea casually tossed out by a critic loosely associated with the AE movement was that if new art was shocking it meant that it was, ipso facto, great and important work. When the emotionally charged and embarrassing painterliness of AE was left behind in that first scramble towards surface graphics, the idea of shock value as a proof of creative worth remained.
It was just a short step to see the artist as a living persona of his work, and then combine the two into a marketable product; a thoroughly American approach. In this way, a sculptor of precisely formed cubes takes on the aura of an aloof Zen Master; a painter of graffiti-inspired art is seen as a tormented child, acting out his rage against society. In due time being identified as an interesting or outrageous “type” was the first thing required of a newly discovered genius. The work itself was secondary. Shock fades quickly, however, and new art personalities must then be found.
I am simplifying in the extreme. It is just that here in America, land of the quick fix and the quick read, it still takes a very long time to make an artist. Maybe in other places in the world, this is an obvious truth.
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Cubism, according to Clement Greenberg, was the seminal art form of the 20th Century. Abstract Expressionism was a continuation in the flattening of the picture plane, begun in Cubist paintings.
In Greenberg’s linear view, the stained canvas work done in the 1960s was a further step along the way to eliminating illusionistic space.
Greenberg allowed that contemporary painting, if it was to be valid, must be divested of all but its most essential element. This irreducible part, said Greenberg, was paint; paint, on a flat surface, suggesting nothing but itself.
In Frankenthaler and Louis’ work, the physical mass of paint no longer was laid on the surface. The integrity of the picture plane was now absolute.
John Cage advanced the view that art should utilize the everyday, the banal, as opposed to using the separate and special. Easel art, ivory towers and traditional art or creative sources were to be discarded.
Cage urged that there be no dramatic build-up or resolution in a creative work. The artist was, instead, to create from an assortment of the banal and commonplace in order to present a collage of associations, derived from the whole of existence.
I see Pop Art as both a criticism and an acceptance of American Culture. I lean toward seeing Pop Art as a reflection of American culture; specifically, the tremendous deluge of post-war material goods and attendant advertising and hype.
As a reflection, it is, by the very nature of the culture, a criticism.
I regard Pop Art as historically interesting, in the societal context. The artists, for the most part, do not seem to be asking questions about the nature of existence. “Life,” it seems to say, “is boring; a big yawn.” There is no effort to go beyond comic books and advertising.
In support of my view, I believe that Andy Warhol’s serial image of Marilyn Monroe is a very good work, in a formalist sense. It is, to put a sharper point on it, a well-executed rendition of the banal; an image which was often seen, to the point of not being able to see it anymore. It is no accident that Warhol often chose the famous face to serialize — it had no meaning or possibility of discovery.
Pop Art is sometimes clever, humorous, or beautiful (as in Warhol’s flowers). But, overall, I see it more as a short period of socially historical interest which ultimately dead-ends, rather than a progression of creative endeavor out of which new art evolves.
April 17, 1983
Dada: If it isn’t art, what is?
Dada was only partly successful as an anti-ART. The way in which Dada was successful was in shattering, once and for all, fixed ideas about what physical forms art must follow. As much as Picasso and his contemporaries did to re-invent sculpture and painting, they were still doing recognizable variations of both. The impulse to render a personal view of the visual world is still present with the cubists. They were involved with depicting the visible world in new ways, but their delineations still utilized the traditional artistic vocabulary of color, composition and line. The Dadaist said, “anything goes;” in essence, they would follow no form, make no concession to the past as far as traditional subjects and materials are concerned.
This usage of non-traditional materials gave freedom to all other artists to do the same. The Dada influence here was profound. This new approach, joined with other Dadist explorations of the random and the obscure, was a final severance of the traditional role of the artist. That is, the general belief that the artist was tied to reproducing the visible world.
Where then, does Dada fail? It is in their inability to couple new materials, format, technique, etc., with new ideas that negates Dada as an ANTI-art movement. The espousal of nihilism as an art form is basically a reactionary movement. The “celebration” of the hopelessness and randomness of life is ultimately a static affair, because content must necessarily be discarded, along with the easel tradition.
When content does appear in Dadaist work, it is a rehash of a traditional theme. Picabia is not so far from Watteau, after all. Picabia’s predilection for works dealing with “the old in and out,” and other Dada works on women and sex that I have seen, are certainly expressive of the views of the time, and, in fact, had been done to death for centuries. Woman as object, woman as less and, conversely, woman as omnipotent and unknowable is a pretty tired script. As a woman, and a painter, I find this busy preoccupation with an old myth depressing, and ultimately boring. Surely there is more to life than being male!
Sex, indeed, seems to have loomed large in what there is for content in Dadaist works. There is an almost palpable sense of adolescent male fervor in their work. The mechanics of the sexual act are presented in clever and interesting ways. These new ways of presenting an old theme probably titillated or shocked people then, but that shock value is no longer there. What is left is the work itself, to be judged (ironically), by traditional concerns of composition, color and line.
My judgment of the Dada works that I have seen is that they are often playful, sometimes decorative and frequently incomprehensible, but devoid of fresh ideas and insights. They do not transcend their time, except as objects of historical interest. Guernica, despite Picasso’s fears, has done so. The work of Kathe Kollwitz retains as much power to move us today as it has ever had, and on a universally understood level. (Guernica, by the way, proves to me that an artist can be a roaring male chauvinist pig and still successfully create work that is universally moving.)
In short, I do not see any insight into the human condition in any of the works of Dada: this is a fatal lack.
Much of the art preceding Dada was admittedly bereft of these insights, also. Untold numbers of paintings were (and are) venerated for diverse reasons, none of which have to do with their intrinsic value, in human terms. In taking aim at this all-too-prevalent public reverence for “Fine Art,” the Dadaists did us a great service.
They turned a page, but they themselves wrote nothing on it.
Duchamp’s statement “If I spit, it is art,” is a provocative concept indeed. It would seem that veneration of the artist has supplanted veneration of the work. I detect a large infusion of Rousseau here: reverence for the Natural Man carried to the absurd extreme.
The great weakness in Duchamp’s “spit” hypothesis, and Dada in general, is that there are no questions asked. Their reactionary nihilist viewpoint pre-supposes the meaningless of life. Therefore it follows that exploration and probing of the human experience is pointless. One is left with mechanics and puns, and an overall futility. It is not enough.
Art is a thoughtful, intense look at the human condition. We are thinking, feeling, visual animals. Art, through color, form and symbols, has the power to move and change us. Through art we confront ourselves.
Ultimately, it is a search for the reason we are here; it is a search for ourselves and god. It is this search that is missing from Dada.
John Baldassare, following the Dada path, reaches the same dead end. Again, there is a preoccupation with the self. Could it be that the narcissistic me society of the 60s and 70s made an emotional connection with this aspect of Dada? Perhaps assertion of the freedom and creative power of the individual surfaces when there are deep schisms developing in the social order of things. A return, taken to the extreme, to the immense powers of the very young child, who believes himself to be the center of the world. You, the artist, (and by Dadaist definition every one is an artist and all things are art), do not have to think. Mere physical existence is enough.
The Dadaists were wrong. It is the thought and effort to communicate with others on the immense question of life itself that advances our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. That is what art is all about.
May 9 1984
A REVIEW OF THE PAINTED WORD
“Realism doesn’t lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial… the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.” These words, among all the millions of words in the April 28, 1974 edition of the Sunday New York Times, Art & Leisure section, reverberated through Tom Wolfe’s mind. At last, he understood, the game was exposed…. without a theory to accompany a work of art, it can’t be seen!
Further bursts of understanding followed. “Modern Art,” he opined, “has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”
All those years of squinting at countless paintings in galleries uptown and down, waiting for the visual reward… Sacre bleu!* It had all been time wasted. (*An exclamation seldom used by tout le monde)
This realization put Tom in a brown funk. He felt peevish and out of sorts, and didn’t feel much like finishing his croissant, so he wrote The Painted Word instead.
Now what are his main points to persuade us? Well, he puts them down for his readers, thusly; (1) the art world is a small town; (2) part of that small town, le monde, always looks to the other, bohemia for the new wave and is primed to believe in it; (3) bohemia is made up of cenacles, schools, coteries, circles, cliques.
As Mr. Wolfe see it, the bohemia of Art, in Paris, in the years between the Wars, existed to shock the bourgeoisie. Poor but free in spirit, raffish, Romantics, one and all, publicly disdaining the common, while secretly burning for Fame, Money, Success. (Picasso, Tom relates with dismay, had the gall, the nerve; quelle horror!; to stay at the Savoy after he had made some money, and to wear a blue-lined cape at the opera! Blue-lined capes, like white suits, are certainly suspect.) This bohemia, then, was a willing and eager Yin to the Yang of the idle rich; tout le monde.
The rich and idle found that money didn’t separate them quite enough from the common herd. They needed Something Else. Voila! They mingled with and identified with bohemia. It was jolly fun, they got to feel avant-garde, it shocked the mater and pater, it made them feel less uneasy about their wealth… all of this and more, especially with the American Nouveau riche.
And so, during the twenties and thirties, Modern art was foisted upon the innocent public. What kind of art was it? Well, artists were no longer owned by the nobility, or Royalty, or the church, as was the case in the 17th century. They were no longer the respected frequenters of the salons of the 18th century. The good life had gone down with the advent of the middle class. When the artists had to go out on their own, adrift in this new society of the frugal middle class; no more commissions from the Queen, no more pate with the countess; they were upset. So they turned on the middle class. The slogan became… “epatez la bourgeoisie.” So evolved Art for Art’s sake, form for the sake of form, color for the sake of color, and myriad “isms.” Fauvism, futurism, cubism, orphism, expressionism, et al. This was the art that was imported to our shores.
There was a hiatus in the 30s, when political and social issues had their day, a school of left-ism, as it were, accompanied by that last gasp of American realism, the Ashcan School. Modern Art really trulydid not make it big until mid-40s and into the 50s.
And why was this? Well, now that World War 2 was over, the chic could get back to the important thing… being with it. To make absolutely sure that nobody would miss the point, literature was brought into things. Reviews, journals, papers, magazines and forums expanded (and expounded) exponentially, writing millions of words about what the art meant. Theory emerged, not to mention theories. The point of all of this, as seen by Mr. Wolfe, was so that tout le monde could read and Understand. After all, the words were written for them… the small town they occupied, cheek by jowl with the artists. Understanding the words, thus gaining points in distancing one’s self from the herd, became the game.
So, Abstract expressionism was all intellectual hype. The game became, for some, not only keeping abreast but leaping ahead. The “isms” changed, and then when it was thought that there was really no more to understand, and that all the words had been written, alors! along comes a new artist and a new theory. Eventually, the theories, as put out by the Leading New York Critics, came out before the art, and the art was then done to fit the theories, and so was born the painted word.
The Word grew and grew, and eventually some young artists still living the life in the cold water flats of New York City bohemia, wanted to get the goodies of success for themselves. Pop Art, and its explainer Leo Steingerg, gave the coup-de-grace to Abstract Expressionism and its explainer, Clement Greenberg. The element of flatness, a quality of Pollock’s works that Greenberg penned lyrical about.. you couldn’t walk into a Pollock, it was too honest for such an ersatz, reactionary experience… became the killing ground for A.E. The weapons were words, and Steinberg came out the winner. Jasper John’s stuff was flatter, and in 1958, he was the new boy in town.
Now the age of theory really took off. The avant garde battles were played out, more and more, at the typewriter. In fact, conceptual art at its purest form required only a typewriter! It had become a literary game.
What a sorry state of affairs. What a terrible mess. What nonsense!
While much of the world bemoans creeping McDonald-ization and Americanization, Mr. Wolfe remains that rarest of creatures… a romantic anachronism, attacking those nasty Foreign ideas that crept across the ocean. In a sort of reverse snobbery, he attacks the modern, tout le monde; America was doing fine without all this modern stuff! After all, look at all the mountains to paint, not to mention Noble Indians and Manly Cowboys. Mr. Wolfe is the quintessential outraged innocent, he writes well, and he just to tell his news.
Either that, or he wanted to make a buck.
This brings up my main argument against the ideas in The Painted Word, which concerns Wolfe’s relegation of the artist as a money-hungry, drunken boor. According to Wolfe, the artist feels (or felt) no imperative to deal, in his or her work, with the time. Money, says Wolfe, and Fame and quest thereof were why painters lived in cheap digs and eschewed three-piece suits. A.E. was collusion of the worst sort, with the results foisted, ipso facto, on the innocent American public. If we follow Mr. Wolfe’s reasoning to the end, the public would choose by consensus, the artist would be a Boy Scout, and the Critics would bring up the rear, telling everybody what a good job they were doing.
I contend, contrary to Mr. Wolfe’s views, that the artists were not just going for the glitter. I advance the idea that most of the artists, some of the time, were concerned with art as communication. At the very least, some of the artists, most of the time.
And everybody knows, of course, that if you are rich you are also empty.
Admitting the attractions of being in the avant-garde, admitting the human failings and rude behavior of artists, admitting the eagerness of some writers of criticism to their own turf, I still strongly believe that it was still a loosely formed group of individuals who were trying to make sense of the world they lived in. A traditional portrait of Harry Truman, holding a model of the Bomb just wouldn’t work, for example, in dealing with the subject of annihilation. How does an artist deal with the whole world, with all the questions? When Dukes died out and artists were dropped from the payroll and the camera came and who needed portrait painters anymore, except as a symbol of middle class solvency, what was the artist to do? One thing they could do was to deal with the whole world; with the intangible, paint, color, the physics of light, the downfall of western civilization, urban growth, war, peace, personal experience, the human condition, etc. A lot of stuff to think about, to present in a new, non-traditional way that will get people’s attention.
Maybe the only folks paying attention were those awful idle rich and the intelligentsia. I say, “Fine with me.” The public gave us Leroy Neiman and Norman Rockwell and Holly Hobbie and countless other abominations.
Tom Wolfe wrote a nifty, entertaining piece. It was fun to read and it probably made him some money. But I don’t think he understands.