Kunstkompass 2015: World’s Top 100 Artists – Top 30 rising art stars and Top 10 historical modern and contemporary artists

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.

Great and Devastating Reviews of MoMA’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

 

 

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HYPERALLERGIC

Museums

Reviewing the Responses to MoMA’s Divisive Painting Survey

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

As talk of art fairs and Björk took the spotlight at the beginning of the month, I lingered on the Museum of Modern Art’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, up through early April. In mulling over its status as either a landmark statement on contemporary painting that demonstrates the museum’s cultural leadership, a taste-making stunt for collectors, or just another group show, I turn to six thoughtful reviews out of the many written about the exhibition. Four are by painters: Sharon Butler, Brian Dupont, Thomas Micchelli, and David Salle; two are by critics: Jason Farago and Christian Viveros-Fauné. There are several possible entry points into the debate: the show’s premise — “atemporality … in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” as eagerly laid out by curator Laura Hoptman in the hardcover-only catalogue; the works themselves; or the show’s timing and venue.

I’ll start with the premise. Salle finds Hoptman’s ideas distracting, “like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think.” “Audacious,” is Farago’s take on the essay. Others are irked by Hoptman’s claim that the premise reflects a “new and strange state of the world.” Viveros-Fauné says her ideas have an “utterly passé nature [since] run-of-the-mill postmodernism has entertained fantasies of simultaneity since the 1970s.” Micchelli calls Hoptman’s concept “old wine in new bottles.” Finally, most question the soundness or even existence of the link between the premise and the paintings selected for the show. “The work has no common denominator outside of generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale,” according to Dupont. Viveros-Fauné says the premise “provides flimsy theoretical cover for this disparate group of painters.” Once in the museum’s galleries, Micchelli finds that “nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point.” So much for a convincing, relevant, and effective organizing principle.

Nicole Eisenman, "Guy Capitalist (2011), oil and mixed media on canvas (collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley; courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Premise or no premise, how does the actual artwork fare? Out of all the work by the 17 selected artists, Farago favors the pieces by the women in the show. “Not one of the eight male artists here comes anywhere close to the intricacy or complexity of [Amy] Sillman, [Laura] Owens, [Nicole] Eisenman, and others,” he writes. The practitioners in my reviewer group bring a hands-on, maker’s understanding to their evaluations of the paintings. Each reveals his or her own personal and aesthetic values as much as each conveys his or her impression of the show. Butler finds pleasure in Josh Smith’s grid of loosely composed paintings, but says the rest of the work displays “a dispiriting interest in strategy and finish over experimentation and heart.” Dupont and Salle work the hardest to parse the art, with gratifying results. Dupont earnestly considers the show within a modern art historical context, focusing on Twombly’s legacy. He is underwhelmed by Rashid Johnson’s monumental, scratched surfaces of black soap and wax, which leave him wondering “just how much really is needed to make a painting?” Salle values paintings with a “sense of structure” that is best exemplified by Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife paintings of colorful, webbed arcs, and Richard Aldrich’s varied collection of works based on a deconstruction of abstract painting. Within the wordy environment of Hoptman’s premise, Salle’s crisp insights on appropriation, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Walter Benjamin, and West Coast aesthetics as they relate to the work in the show are welcome and easily put to use.

In several cases the critics under consideration have polar opposite reactions to specific pieces. Julie Mehretu’s large, grey-and-black, calligraphic work, for instance, is rated by Dupont as the most related to Hoptman’s notion of atemporality, whereas Farago, while admiring her as an artist, asks: “What on earth is Julie Mehretu doing in this show?” Sillman’s layered color improvisations in oil are a favorite among most, while Oscar Murillo’s dark, graffiti canvases — including the interactive work on the floor — are almost unanimously dismissed. An overarching complaint is that most of the work in the show seems shallow — Salle’s word is “unconvincing”; “safe, decorator wares,” according to Viveros-Fauné; Butler’s phrase is “command-z aesthetic.”

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

From my perspective as a painter, the show’s pinball game-like layout helps to disguise a pervasive and telling sameness of surface. Forever Now makes a punchy first impression. The drama is superficially heightened by having some paintings hung too high and some placed on the floor, leaning against the wall, while others are grouped in batches. Walking through the compactly installed show, I spent time looking at each work in relation to its neighbors. Since you have to walk back through the show to exit, an alternate version of these juxtapositions is available on the return trip. Despite the initial intrigue with scale and color, starting with Kerstin Bratsch’s monumental, high-contrast, framed works on paper propped against the exterior of the exhibition gallery, I eventually noticed a dead-eyed lack of variety in paint application in works throughout the exhibition. Neither Smith nor Mehretu vary their brush width, Grotjahn’s palette knife stripes are nearly identical, Mike Wilson’s compositions are covered with uniformly murky goo, Johnson scores his surfaces with the same tool, and Joe Bradley’s stick figures in grease pencil have virtually no surface at all. In contrast, Sillman, Bratsch, and Charline von Heyl offer a richer visual reward. Even if painters avail themselves of the entire stockpile of art historical references — digitally or by other means — it is the vagaries of individual subjective experience, translated through the mind, eye, hand, and more visceral organs of the painter, that make a painting worthwhile.

It has been 30 years since MoMA’s last milestone painting exhibition. We can only guess at why the museum has let such a long gap in time occur in its participation in the conversation about painting. The delay adds to the pressure to perform with this show. The significant conceptual flaws in Hoptman’s atemporal premise are a misstep and make me suspicious of her motives. That she equates the internet with simultaneity is just plain wrong. As Salle notes, “Hoptman 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.” It’s as if Hoptman is trying to sell us on the openness of content sources as an appealing, “no strings attached” lifestyle. There may in fact be oceans of digital information available online, but it still enters our consciousness through a variety of knowable sorting mechanisms that are not so different from attaining knowledge by sitting in a library with a book. Hoptman is siding with the machines.

Charline von Heyl, "Carlotta" (2013), oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas (Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles; courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York; photo by Jason Mandella)

If Hoptman’s misdirection is unintentional, I suppose that could be forgiven, but given her position and MoMA’s status as an institution, it’s a disappointment. Viveros-Fauné suggests that MoMA has a more self-serving basis for the show’s inflated concept and distracting execution. He proposes that, in place of embracing the “pioneering critical spirit” of the museum’s prior directors and curators, Hoptman’s Forever Now is pandering to collectors and donors who support the museum financially — especially now, as it prepares for another expansion. MoMA’s motive for the show could be to support painting as an “asset class,” to use Dupont’s phrase, as opposed to dealing in the realm of ideas. “In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street,” Micchelli writes. We don’t need more art that masks the effects of our society’s calcified and coercive patriarchal structures. We don’t need more instances of institutional conflict of interest disguised as leadership.

Ultimately, I can’t help comparing Forever Now to a Super Bowl halftime show: hotly anticipated, splashy, mainstream entertainment packaged with a story for corporate sponsors and those in the VIP suites. It’s as if Hoptman sees painters as the ultimate mash-up artists, with the emphasis in her show being on style over content. While the bloodsport of fine art — and the goings on of the actual world — rage on around it, no head injuries or body blows occur within the exhibition’s snug, stage-like realm. I can’t decide if Forever Now’s shortcomings represent a tragic lost opportunity, or if the distance between the show’s over-reaching premise and under-performing artworks is part of an art world joke on the larger museum-going audience.

Amy Sillman, "Still Life 2" (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; artwork © 2014 Amy Sillman; Photo by John Berens)

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5.

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BROOKLYN RAIL

THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

In an instance of spectacularly unfortunate programming, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World shared the first two months of its exhibition life on the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor with Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Visitors intoxicated with Matisse’s rhapsodic color and cunning simplicity wandered bemused through the thicket of contradictory, restrained, profligate, ambivalent paintings in The Forever Now exhibition.

Rashid Johnson. Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” (2011). Black soap and wax. 96 × 120 × 13/4 ̋. Collection of Richard Chang. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

The exhibition announces its disruptive position outside the entrance to the gallery, where Kerstin Brätsch’s super-sized drawings-as-paintings in monumental wooden frames variously hang on the wall or stand stacked awaiting their turn. These are complex works in which shards of black invade vaporous orbs of light out of Nolde and O’Keeffe, malevolently stealing their glow as though jagged sci-fi creatures were colonizing Brätsch’s customary brash color.

On the evidence of sight alone, the paintings by 17 painters in The Forever Now exhibition do not bear a discernible relationship to one another. Matt Connors pirates and dismembers color strategies from Matisse through Richter with screwball combinations and improbably painted frames. Rashid Johnson incises thick gestural troughs through expanses of black soap and mud. Dianna Molzan unravels her paintings, deconstructs canvas and frame, and repositions both structure and surface as sculpture.

But The Forever Now is not specifically concerned with what the eye sees. Its motivating principle is theory. In the end that theory has very little to do with the actual experience of viewing the paintings. It misunderstands the process of their making and obfuscates the reasons for their selection.

Laura Hoptman, curator of the exhibition, has been called “the canary in the coal mine of contemporary art.”1 The selections she made for MoMA’s Projects series between 1995 and 2001, before she departed to organize the 2004 – 05 Carnegie International and to mount such exhibitions as Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum, have since been successfully market tested. As a canary in the coal mine, Hoptman has responded to a very real phenomenon since the turn of the millennium—the upsurge of painters painting and the prevalence of abstraction emerging from studios—and she has guided MoMA on a painting buying spree. As a coal mine canary, she might also appreciate comments of the “my graduate students can do better” variety from an exhibition visitor or two. After all, isn’t one test of advanced art that it takes a while for audiences to get it?

On the contrary, Hoptman argues in her catalogue essay. In this cultural moment of forever now, “thanks to the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” a situation that the science-fiction writer William Gibson described as “atemporality” in 2003. The artists whose search engines prowl continents and eras, universes and grains of sand for information and cues “dramatically” challenge “the great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so dependent upon the idea of the new superseding the old in a movement simultaneously forward and upward,” she writes in the catalogue. The already well-acknowledged artists on the MoMA’s sixth-floor walls don’t hold with the notion of historical progress or make any attempt “to define the times in which we live,” she writes. On the contrary, “it is not progress as such that is at stake in this new, atemporal universe. Time-based terms like progressive—and its opposite reactionary, avant- and arrière-garde—are of little use to describe atemporal works of art.” Instead, she states, images from all times and all places have become malleable materials to mine, manipulate, “reanimate,” “reenact,” and “cannibalize.”

It’s a workmanlike, even plausible, concept particularly since atemporality under various soubrettes has lately been the hot new concept in fiction, fashion, poetry, pop music, and pop culture. Yes, the impulse to name a period is irresistible; yes we live in a Google world; yes information is cheap and phlegmatic. But as a lens for looking at painting—and particularly at some of the most arresting paintings in the exhibition—the Forever Now thesis is as reductive as Modernist Formalism. It leaves out intent, content, biography, the alchemy of transmutation, the hustle and flow of lived life, the conversation between hand and paint—all variously present in works in the show. And most of all it leaves out how painters make and what the eye sees.

“You feel the painting and the reason you read the mark is because you can also feel the mark,” the painter Julie Mehretu has said.2 Her exquisitely layered, often epic encrustations of marks, erasures, fade-outs, superimpositions, and gestures engulf an underlying stratum of maps, grids, and blueprints—emblems of humanity’s attempts at imposing order. Only on the most superficial level does the fierce calligraphy distilled into her new paintings in the exhibition fit the atemporal template.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, where her American mother and Ethiopian father experienced the radical disruptions of decolonization, and she fled with them at the age of seven in 1977 during the Derg terror. “Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas,” she has said.3 Through painting, she interrogates the news, the contradictions of the moment into which she was born and history as it evolves. That includes 9/11, the Iraq War, and internecine battles everywhere. True, she browses the Internet for information about Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, a new shopping center in Africa, et al. But this is hardly promiscuous surfing. It serves core concerns with construction and collapse, order and chaos, utopias and their disintegration, all occurring simultaneously. She also incubates images while watching TV, listening to NPR, riding the subway, traveling, reading, doing all the things that artists do to inhale reality and exhale it as a work of art.

I’d argue that it has almost always been thus. The Internet may be faster than the mind can comprehend, its reach further and less discriminating than once imaginable. But Willem de Kooning created his mash-ups from cartoons, movies, magazine pinups, art historical training, 10th Street talk, Louse Point water-gazing, and East Hampton evenings on his orange leather couch paging through artbooks in the interests of problem-solving.

In the exhibition, Mary Weatherford is represented by neon tubes affixed like slashing lines to dark washes of color (for New York) or sunny hues (for Bakersfield, California). Memory and experience trumped Internet when she recited the backstory of the Bakersfield paintings for W Magazine in a “breakneck monologue that touches on the Dust Bowl, the oil rush, The Grapes of Wrath, Dorothea Lange, Merle Haggard, honky-tonks, the Tea Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and dinosaurs. Thrown in are an impression of Jackson Pollock and a rendition of a Beatles song.”4 Even more important than such sources, is what, in the actual making, she left out.

The Internet collapses time and space, alters world views, influences consumption, and disrupts economic sectors. It lets artists’ fingers do some of the walking. It certainly wields its influence on painting, but so did the newfangled tools of the telegraph, the automobile, the radio, photography, and television, not to mention technological advances in the materials of canvas, oil paint, acrylic, video, and—thank you David Hockney—the copying machine and the smart phone. In the end, painting and drawing are handmade, their recombinant DNA resulting from an intimate interface between artist and process. Many of the artists in the exhibition engage in multiple practices, venturing periodically into photography, performance, installation, sculpture—each medium with its own history, demands, and possibilities.

The strength of The Forever Now exhibition lies in the macro/micro nature of so many of the paintings, which demand multiple viewpoints, with close-up examination of details and passages slowing things down to pre-fiber-optic pace. Visual satisfactions are often labor intensive. Even here, Hoptman diminishes the rewards by installing mostly color affinities, dark to light. Palettes of tamped down greens and golds, dour purples, grays, and blacks inhabit the opening galleries, periodically interspersed with antic shout-outs of color by way of Nicole Eisenman’s riffs on portraiture, modernism, and masks. (There’s comic relief, partway through, in young-artist-of-the-moment Oscar Murillo’s sophisticated takes on graffiti, rendered in underplayed urban colors. Viewers are invited to interact with a selection of his canvases heaped on the floor. One afternoon I watched four dapper men drape the paintings neatly over their suits and request the guard to shoot them the old-fashioned way before selfies.) The exhibition’s tone brightens in the back galleries, culminating on the end wall with Michael Williams’s resort-wear hued, allover compositions of air-brushed washes, and computer-generated painted incidents.

This literal arrangement of works manages to diminish the force of Rashid Johnson’s black soap and wax paintings, which could easily have held the whole gallery on their own. The black-on-black paintings induce an aftereffect in the manner of Ad Reinhardt, as the eye attempts to focus. Gouged with a broom handle, his whole body implicit in the gesture, the paintings suggest bomb sites, itinerant paths, the mellow wail of jazz on a summer night. In the grand humanist tradition, he holds that “Art should be about the bigger issues in life. Life, death, sex, taxes, race, gender. The best art has something to say about the human condition.”5

As with so many of the artists, it wasn’t necessarily from the Internet that Johnson learned sampling. His influences are as apt to be tangible as digital. “I’ve collected so many things that there are so many crosscurrents of language and contradiction throughout my studio, whether it be a rap album next to W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, or a gold rock that I painted next to a brass urn. It’s all this language that, when combined, produces a complicated kind of narrative.”6

A good place to end here, is with a poem that is a kind  of road map to the ways in which so many artists—and poets—make art. Frank O’Hara wrote “The Day Lady Died,” on a typewriter in 1964:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

 


Endnotes

  1. Julie Halperin, “The Curator as Canary or Crony,” The Observer (Oct. 20, 2010).
  2. Julie Mehretu, “To be Felt as Much as Read,” Interview by Susan Sollins, Art21 (Oct. 2009).
  3. Jason Farago, “Julie Mehretu … from Tarhir Square to Zucotti Park,” The Guardian (June 20, 2013).
  4. Fan Zhong, “Mary Weatherford: Brushes with Greatness,” W Magazine (Dec. 11, 2014).
  5. Andrew Goldstein, “Rashid Johnson on Making Art ‘About the Bigger Issues in Life,’” Artspace (Dec. 31, 2013).
  6. ibid.
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BROOKLYN RAIL

THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

Nothing sums up the ephemeral nature of MoMA’s attempt to make a statement about painting today better than its title, The Forever Now. The phrase implies no history and no future, no past and no evolution. All the right “postmodernist” tendencies are represented—stylistic quotation, simulation, irony, mixed media, self-reference, graffiti, media recycling, text and image, interactivity, multiple overlays—you fill in the rest. In that sense, the works are strictly academic, torn from the pages of the art magazines or taught in the proliferation of M.F.A. programs. However, the dominant tone is not of a rigorous examination of the medium. Rather, the feeling is of the relaxed atmosphere of a mosh pit in a provincial art fair.

The question is, why is this show at MoMA? The answer seems only too obvious: the collectors who own the work are young and affluent potential new donors to the insatiable funding needs of the ever expanding, constantly morphing museum that once prided itself on having its great permanent collection permanently on display. (Now, try and find these fragments on view in hallways and ancillary galleries.) In the show’s favor is the fact that of the 17 painters included, each is represented by several works that when viewed together, could possibly be assessed as a personal style. The collection of oversize, bright paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch piled up and flanking the entrance are indeed startling and could possibly have been a credible one-person exhibition. Instead, they are stacked casually on the floor so that few can be entirely seen. The jagged black framing image is bold, as are the brilliant colors that pop like a fireworks display. Unfortunately, the rest of the works in The Forever Now, with the exception of Julie Mehretu’s paintings of dense and elegant calligraphic filigree, seem flaccid and singularly unambitious despite their hugeness, which unfortunately does not correspond to monumental scale.

Matt Connors, “Divot,” (2012). Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ̋. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy of Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

Making paintings as big as those of the New York School does not equate to anything more than using large quantities of material. In some cases, like that of Michaela Eichwald, her individual works are more impressive than the large mural in the show that lacks concentration and coherence. Matt Connors, too, is better dealing with human rather than architectural scale; it’s too easy to see his tricolor floor to ceiling planks as a Gulliver-size marriage of Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken. But at least in the smaller, more personal pieces he exhibits interest in perceptual issues and a lack of fear in confronting the past. Nicole Eisenman, once one of my favorite painters, is represented by enormous, thickly impastoed caricatures of goofy heads that seem inexplicably crude in comparison with her earlier work as if she, too, felt the need to join the chaotic din that characterizes this not-so-magic moment.

Among the common denominators of this exhibition is a lack of coherence; an indication perhaps of what post-postmodernism may turn out to be. Presenting this collection of works as a sampling of where painting is now, is as irresponsible as within the current context it is understandable. These artists, after all, are supported by “emerging collectors”—“emerging” being the code word for a non existent avant-garde—courted by powerful galleries who place ads in art magazines, which review shows by galleries who advertise. This self-serving Ring-Around-the-Rosie proves why the exhibition of a work at MoMA is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a much sought-after guarantee of quality that instantly skyrockets prices into the auction house stratosphere.

Some of the choices are clearly more market driven than others. Saatchi and Rubell protégé Oscar Murillo’s hodge-podge of this, that, the other thing, and everything else is particularly vacuous and unconvincing. Murillo’s is not the only work that suggests more is less, seeming to throw everything against the wall to give an impression of excitement, activity, and the spontaneity that is, in fact, entirely absent. The result is like a Chinese master sauce to which new ingredients are constantly added until a thick gluey mixture produces a blurring of distinctions in taste and consistency. One senses a desperate, even nervous need to get the recipe right despite the je m’en fous nonchalance of the Forever Now artists. The problem with the mock-heroic dimensions of many of the canvases is that the inarticulate surfaces look flabby rather than tense. This suggests that the work, rather than trying to stun with super size, should go on a diet.

I remember when “freshness” was the sought after quality in painting. Laura Owens makes a stab at freshness with her wallpaper-like floral motif embellished with oil stick squiggles, but the effect is coy rather than crisp. The artist who most successfully embraces the slacker attitude is Richard Aldrich. His conflated and referential images do have a certain piquant unpredictability. His use of mixed media—including greasy oil, wax, and charcoal on fine linen—belies the sophistication behind his off-the-cuff bricolage style. In the all and anything-at-all current mode, he does it best. Looking casually uncomposed, the work is actually quite consciously structured.

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)” (2012). Oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 8 ́5 1/2 ̋ × 72 1/2 ̋. Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy of Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio.

Mark Grotjahn’s “Circus” triptych is a competent evocation of the manic thrill of roller-coaster rides which is at least evocative, demonstrating control and skill, rather than just an empty accumulation of larded pigments and aimless scrawls. Personally, I think Kurt Godwin’s complex carnivals were more original and ambitious, but he had the disadvantage of living on the wrong side of the tracks in Virginia where nary a critic or curator would venture. He painted all his life, immersing himself directly in the alchemical sources of both Duchamp and the best recent German art. He died last fall, age 58, in total obscurity.

It’s not as if there is no ambitious painting today that would not look out of place in a Museum of Modern Art, a name by now inappropriate for much currently featured by the Matrix on 53rd Street. Everyone, of course, has their own suggestion of painters not on the list of conspicuously strategized market darlings in The Forever Now. I would point to the exquisite enlarged miniatures of Shahzia Sikander, the rigorous constructions of R.H. Quaytman, the sophisticated color and compositions of Joanna Pousette-Dart, the tough materiality of Melissa Kretschmer, and the lush, fluid painterliness of Cecily Brown, along with the meticulous warped optical space of Rebecca Norton, the kinky perfection of Julie Speed, or the quiet poetry of Mary Corse. Not only is their painting unhip and uncool, they have the distinct disadvantage that they can’t produce enough to satisfy the needs of international mass production. Their work requires long hours of thought, preparation, and execution, as opposed to the fast-food rehash of Sigmar Polke—whose stunning retrospective, it should be said, MoMA did house—Albert Ohlehn and Martin Kippenburger, the apparent godfathers of The Forever Now. It is as if the unspoken message for young artists is grab the first flight for Berlin; do not pass New York or Paris except in reproduction.

I never thought I would be nostalgic for Marcia Tucker’s 1978 Whitney Museum Bad Painting show. In retrospect, it was a valiant effort to show a group of highly individualistic works that went beyond the boundaries of good taste and current trends. Like Kynaston McShine’s equally aberrant and even more memorable International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture show at MoMA in 1984, Bad Painting made no attempt to find common denominators defining a moment. At the time, McShine was quoted as saying, “I have to go beyond the way work is perceived in New York … a serious public cannot depend upon the whims of commercial galleries. It has to depend upon museums.” Ah, how nostalgic that sounds today. An independent contrarian spirit, McShine curated exhibitions that brought unexpected variety to MoMA’s mainstream program that have not been sufficiently acknowledged as major contributions. Some of the artists he chose were more durable than others, but many in the International Survey proved to become major international figures. And surely one of the “bad painters,” Neil Jenney, deserves to occupy precious MoMA space with a retrospective far more than this collection of forever now, forgotten tomorrow work.

Contributor

Barbara Rose BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.

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ARTNEWS
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.

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

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Antenna More paint, less ‘isms’

Antenna: More paint, less ‘isms’

Sampling is in which, according to Meredith Etherington-Smith,
might just lead paint out of the cul de sac of the conceptual

Forget conceptual, let’s talk timeless


The earliest years of the 20th century were a tale of ‘isms’ — from the dying fall of Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Cubism, Surrealism and on to Abstract Expressionism; all convenient labels which defined and promoted artists in different schools of art.

In the earliest years of the 21st century, however, something very different is going on. Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at MoMA in New York could be taken as long-hand for ‘anything that smacks of an ism is irrelevant to contemporary art’. This is a show of work by 17 artists (see our interview with the curator), none of whom represent through style, content or medium the time in which they work.

Left: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36” (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate

Right: Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18), 2012. Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. 8’ 5 1/2” × 72 1/2” (257.8 × 184.2 cm). Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Put another way, sampling is in. That means historical references to the ism schools of 20th century art or earlier and general sampling of popular motifs — all at the same time. It’s the same thing that’s happening now in literature, fashion and popular music. The Seventies are back? Yeah! So are the Cubist Twenties, and so, for that matter, are the Abstract Expressionist Fifties, Sixties, and so on.

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 82 x 76” (208.3 x 193 cm). Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella
In fact, the only thing that the artists in this exhibition have in common is paint. And maybe that’s the giveaway — the common denominator — even if it isn’t an ism: that this whole sampling exercise, this banishment of isms, is a way out of the cul de sac paint got itself into which led to the ‘conceptual decade’ at the end of the last century.

Rising stars like Oscar Murillo, established stars such as Matt Grohjahn, Charline von Heyl and Richard Aldrich are painting, not welding. So forget conceptual; talk timeless.

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MoMA until 5 April 2015.

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ART CRITICAL

Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

From the 1940s through the early ’60s, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a series of group shows that offered many viewers their first glimpse of some of the most vital new American painting and sculpture of the day. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller, the exhibitions never claimed to capture the zeitgeist, but rather to do nothing more than display new art worth considering. Even the titles of the shows were modest: “Sixteen Americans,” “Twelve Americans” and so on. As Miller explained in 1959, “Differences rather than similarities in point of view, as well as in age, experience and fame, have been emphasized in these exhibitions at the Museum…bringing together distinct and widely varying personalities.” Yet the shows were often controversial. “Congratulations, Dorothy,” her boss, Alfred H. Barr, quipped at the opening of one. “You’ve done it again. They all hate it.”

Yet the “Americans” exhibitions are legendary because Miller was discerning in her choices. In 1946, the second of these shows, “Fourteen Americans,” included such exponents of the new abstraction as Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. Among those in “Sixteen Americans,” in 1959, were Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, not to mention the West Coast assemblagists Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick; and the last in the series, “Americans 1963,” included the budding Pop artists Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist among the fifteen selected, as well as young and older abstractionists such as Lee Bontecou and Ad Reinhardt.

Miller decided to start the series because she’d realized that there was no other way for many artists, in the New York of the 1940s, to get their work seen. “I had this terribly sad job of seeing all these artists who were starving,” she later said. “There were no galleries to send them to.” By the mid-’60s that was no longer true. Accompanying the emergence of Pop Art was a boom in the market for contemporary art, and the number of galleries mushroomed along with it. Fifty years on, New York is so thick with galleries that it’s impossible to immerse yourself in all of them, and so many cities around the world have thriving gallery scenes (and art fairs) that you couldn’t possibly visit them all. Maybe the museum should be the public’s filter again—surveying all the galleries and selecting the best work for an audience that wants to explore contemporary art without hacking a path through the jungle. Except that the population of artists has increased even more rapidly than the number of galleries, so that there are still plenty of talented artists whose work is hard to see even for die-hards of the scene.

One of the current shows at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 5) could have been called “Fourteen or Fifteen More-or-Less Americans, Three Germans and a Colombian Who Lives in London.” That’s an unwieldy title, but also as accurate and straightforward as it could be. The “More-or-Less” would be necessary because the show includes some foreign-born New Yorkers, and the qualification also has the virtue of not pretending that the exhibition is other than it is: a gathering of “distinct and widely varying personalities” with not much more in common than that they’re all at work right now and the curator (in this case, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman) thinks they demand attention.

Sad to say, MoMA has done something different: it has saddled the exhibition with the unjustified goal of thematic coherence. With good reason, the museum has lost faith in its competence to pick the cream of contemporary painting without ulterior rationale. What’s on offer instead is another nebulous effort to take the temperature of the zeitgeist. But guess what? It’s the zeitgeist of no zeitgeist, so anything goes. The show is called “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” and, according to the museum’s press release, the remarkable thing about the works is that “they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.” How is that even possible? Hoptman, in her catalog essay, attributes the word “atemporality” to the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, for whom it means “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” But long before the invention of the Internet, Jorge Luis Borges imagined an infinite library in which all the books that could ever be written would already exist. What’s new and odd is the urge to characterize a phenomenon of apparent timelessness with the distinctly temporal designation “new.” Neo retro, anyone?

In any case, the feeling hazily conjured at MoMA is far from new. “All ages are contemporaneous,” Ezra Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance in 1910. He might have seemed, at the time, to be speaking for the great cultural movement about to emerge—for James Joyce, with his layering of classical myth and the profane reality of early-twentieth-century Dublin in Ulysses; for Picasso, whose postwar art of pastiche seemed to disassemble and recombine historical styles just as his earlier work had taken apart and reconstructed pictorial space; for Stravinsky, whose music had found a sense of modernity in both primitive ritual (The Rite of Spring) and the mincing artifices of the eighteenth-century ballroom (Pulcinella), and who sought for his Oedipus Rex “a medium not dead but turned to stone.” And decades later, the postmodernism of the 1980s—above all in architecture but also in the quotationism of neo-Expressionist and “transavantgarde” painting—sought atemporality with a vengeance.

* * *

For Hoptman, all this history is bunk. “Forever Now” does not mean, as it did for Gibson, that “all eras seem to exist at once,” but that the present is all, and no one knows when that is. Her only point of comparison is with the practice of “appropriation in the 1980s,” by which she presumably means Sherrie Levine’s quotations of famous photographs or Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man. She might have thought back to the 1960s and Elaine Sturtevant’s remakes of works by contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, the subject of a retrospective elsewhere at MoMA (“Sturtevant: Double Trouble” is on view through February 22). Levine, Prince and Sturtevant are the artists who, as Hoptman says, “lifted images and styles from art history and pop culture and dropped them in the arena of contemporary art as if they were toxic ready-mades, stripped of their auras of power and persuasion through decontextualization.” By contrast, according to Hoptman, her atemporalists draw on history guiltlessly, one might even say uncritically. Maybe so, but wouldn’t she say the same of artists as different as Nancy Spero, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel, each of whom has ranged through time and space in pursuit of the sources of his or her art?

If anything, Hoptman’s artists du jour have a shallow sense of tradition. One of Richard Aldrich’s paintings has a certain redolence of the Philip Guston of the early ’60s; Matt Connors is showing a twelve-foot-tall triptych of red, yellow and blue monochromes that can’t fail to remind you of Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman; Nicole Eisenman’s stylized heads have discreet echoes of Paul Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky as well as of the ’80s neo-Expressionists themselves; Mark Grotjahn’s densely layered concatenations of shimmering, thickly textured lines recall Joseph Stella’s Americanized Futurism as reinterpreted by way of Richard Pousette-Dart’s hypnotic tactility; Amy Sillman sometimes uses still life as an armature for abstraction in ways that would not have seemed alien to Hans Hofmann; Rashid Johnson and Julie Mehretu draw very different conclusions from Cy Twombly—in Johnson’s case, an influence productively united with that of the matterism of ’50s Europeans like Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri.

I could go on, but you get the point: for inspiration, Hoptman’s atemporalists rarely look beyond European and American modernism, and most often postwar modernism—which is not surprising, because most of them are abstractionists. Less easily explicable is the restricted geographical reach of Hoptman’s choice in an era when ideas, like people, pass so easily from continent to continent. The time traveling behind Spero’s fascination with the archaic or Clemente’s with Indian miniatures or Schnabel’s recourse to the religious iconography of Spanish and Mexican Catholicism—this is absent from “The Forever Now.” As it is, the best paintings in the show are the least dependent on citation: in a set of gloriously luminous works, depicted light is confronted with the literal light of bent neon tubes that Mary Weatherford has stretched like drawn lines across the canvas. Almost miraculously, it’s the depicted light that wins out.

* * *

What MoMA has offered is hardly a state-of-the-art report on painting in an age when the Internet has supposedly made all the information in time and space available to us simultaneously. But how would the exhibition look to the innocent viewer who walks into the museum without reading the catalog or text panels or giving a second thought to the title? How would it be, in other words, for the viewer who sees the show for what it really is, a sort of “Seventeen Mostly Americans”?

A little better, but not a lot. The usual MoMA tendency to shoehorn too many works into too little space is partly to blame. At least Kerstin Brätsch is lucky enough to have her massive “Blocked Radiant” paintings on paper installed in the hall outside the show’s first room, where they can breathe a little; and the strongest of an otherwise thin batch of paintings by Laura Owens, combining silk-screened appropriated imagery and freehand gesture, broadcasts loud and clear from the wall above the ground floor ticket desk. But in the rooms housing the bulk of the show’s art, the works elbow each other irritably. More important, Hoptman’s choices are questionable—not only her selection of artists, but also her selection of works by some of them. Eisenman, Grotjahn and Sillman are among the most interesting painters at work today, but the canvases of theirs on view give little sense of their range and adventurousness. Owens, Aldrich and Brätsch, like Charline von Heyl and Josh Smith, have always been hit-or-miss (in Smith’s case, where Stakhanovite productivity is the name of the game, the misses must number in the thousands, and for all I know maybe the hits do too), and while a daring inconsistency is often in itself attractive, the selection here makes it less so.

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A tightly organized presentation of just those five artists might have made for a rewarding show in itself—an examination of how what looks like eclecticism can sometimes amount to a determinate artistic strategy. On the other hand, Oscar Murillo and Michael Williams still look like promising, slightly too energetic grad students, and it seems a little cruel to expose their weaknesses in public when some good might still come of them if they are left to develop at their own pace, undisturbed. The jury is still out on Connors, Michaela Eichwald and Dianna Molzan. But Mehretu, like Joe Bradley, is wildly overrated. Rashid Johnson, better known as a photographer, assemblagist and installation artist than as a painter, comes on strong with his “Cosmic Slop” paintings (their title borrowed from the 1973 George Clinton/Bernie Worrell song about doing what you’ve got to do to survive)—monochromes made of black soap mixed with wax and vigorously incised. Along with Weatherford, Johnson will be the surprise bonus for many viewers of ”The Forever Now.”

I owe to Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the exhibition the “demographic detail”—which I have to admit I’d overlooked—that almost all the male artists in the show are younger than almost all the women. That tells us something about time and history that Hoptman’s notion of atemporality leaves out: that men can still find institutional and market acceptance far more quickly than their female peers. I’m getting sick of it. Unfortunately, Smith, who certainly knows better, falls into the trap of pitting women against women, pointing out some midcareer women painters who she feels might have been worthier inclusions than those in the show. More to the point would be to mention the young women artists who might have been there instead of the young guys. Sticking to New Yorkers, I’d trade Bradley and Williams for Amy Feldman, Julia Rommel, Kianja Strobert or Wendy White any day.

* * *

What “The Forever Now” fails to offer is painting that, in its curator’s words, is “inspired by, refers to, or avails itself of styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas from an array of periods on the art-historical timeline.” To see such work, amble downtown to the New Museum, where Chris Ofili’s midcareer retrospective “Night and Day” is on view through February 1.

Although Ofili, now in his mid-40s, is one of the most prominent figures in the British art scene (despite his having deserted London for Trinidad), New Yorkers still probably know him best, unfortunately, for the 1999 controversy over the Brooklyn Museum show “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.” There, Ofili’s 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary became an object of extreme contention; like most of his paintings at the time, it used elephant dung as one of its materials. It was denounced in the pages of the Daily News, then by the Catholic League and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who threatened to cut off municipal funding for the museum and evict it from its city-owned building. Catholic groups picketed the museum, and the painting itself was eventually vandalized by a protester who smeared it with white paint—the black Madonna had to be whitewashed to be made less offensive—though conservators were able to successfully remove the paint before it dried.

The Holy Virgin Mary is here again to bless us, and I still agree with Peter Schjeldahl in his review of “Sensation” for The New Yorker, where he wrote that “Ofili’s lightning-rod canvas is gorgeous, sweet, and respectful of its subject.” Ofili’s art of the 1990s is mostly joyous and extrovert, and designed to catch the eye, as much by wild patterning as by the employment of porn and pop-cultural imagery and the symbolism of black nationalism. At the New Museum, there are a few works from the period that are more overtly serious in their demeanor, like The Holy Virgin Mary or No Woman, No Cry, from 1998, but they are exceptions. (The latter painting was a response to the murder in London of a black teenager; it was subsequently found that the haphazard way in which the crime was investigated was a result of institutional racism on the part of the Metropolitan Police.)

Around the middle of the last decade, Ofili’s art suddenly changed. Out went the elephant dung, the glitter, the riotous patterning, the map pins, the often raw and attention-grabbing subject matter—though the religious overtones remained. What came in is harder to characterize, and that seems deliberate. In 2005, Ofili moved from London to Port of Spain, Trinidad. To some degree, the move seems to have been a calculated effort to distance himself from the London art scene, where he had become the object of attention and where he was rapidly becoming something like an establishment figure. He’s chosen rural life over his urban origins, but also a locale where, as a foreigner who is black, he can blend in, becoming an observer who looks on from close quarters without attracting attention.

Strangely enough, some of Ofili’s more recent works all but rebuff the viewer’s attention. The “Night” segment of “Night and Day” is a group of paintings done mostly in shades of blue, and shown in a room with dark walls and lowered lights. Even after your eyes adjust to the darkness, it’s still hard to detect the forms in the paintings. One depicts the hanged Judas; another, a man set on by policemen. In a few cases, I was never quite able to tell what it was I was trying to see. But even in other recent paintings that are not so hard to decipher, the imagery can be difficult to interpret. Ofili seems to evoke what might be a coherent narrative or at least a metaphor, only to dissolve it into ambiguity. Stylistically, too, his reach has become broader, more unpredictable. Robert Storr, in his catalog essay for the New Museum, notes that “the work’s pictorial frame of reference has changed dramatically from that of the earlier works to a sleek, semisilhouetted semiabstraction reminiscent in some respects of the cutouts of Henri Matisse, and in others of Art Deco murals, while evoking the fusion of these influences in the marvelous rhythmic hybridity of Romare Bearden’s collages and prints.” Tribal art is recurrently evoked too. Ofili’s subject matter ranges from biblical tales to Greco-Roman myth to Afro-Caribbean folklore to the artifice of daily life in what is also, after all, a tourist destination. He seems to be questioning, more and more, who he is—what he’s made of and what he cannot absorb. He doesn’t always succeed in making his images and influences cohere, but his self-questioning has its own coherence that transcends mere thematic or even pictorial consistency. It’s a communion with the unknown.

 

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WALL STREET JOURNAL

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

14 Dec 20145 Apr 2015 at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Nicole Eisenman. Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60” (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection of Noel Kirnon, New York, NY. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Paintings by 17 artists working today will be the focus of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art from December 14, 2014, through April 5, 2015. These works are united by a singular approach that characterizes our cultural moment in the early years of this millennium: they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made. This “atemporality,” or timelessness—also present in contemporary literature, fashion, and popular music—is manifested in painting through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

The Forever Now includes nearly 90 stylistically disparate, and often visually dazzling, large- and small-scale paintings made in the last several years by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams. Several artists—including Connors, Eisenman, and Owens—are producing new work for the exhibition.

The featured artists utilize a wide variety of styles and impulses, but all use the painted surface as a platform, map, or metaphoric screen on which genres intermingle, morph, and collide. Their work represents an engagement with traditional painting, however each artist tests those traditions with a view towards reshaping the various languages of abstraction, redefining strategies like appropriation and bricolage, and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions that surround notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World will be accompanied by a catalogue featuring an introductory essay by curator Laura Hoptman and illustrated sections on each of the 17 artists.

 

 

 

New Yorker magazine
The Art World January 5, 2015 Issue
Take Your Time
New painting at the Museum of Modern Art.
By Peter Schjeldahl

 

2015_01_05

Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Credit Courtesy MOMA and Enid A. Haupt Fund

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Those lines, from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’ ” published in 1934, came to mind at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a challenging show of seventeen mid-career artists at the Museum of Modern Art. The note of dismay resonates generally today, when another of Eliot’s prophetic laments—“distracted from distraction by distraction,” from a year later, in “Burnt Norton”—might be this morning’s spiritual weather report. But consider the signal plight of painting. The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is “dead” again—no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body. But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information. Some of the painters in “Forever Now,” along with the show’s thoughtful curator, Laura Hoptman, face this fact.

Don’t attend the show seeking easy joys. Few are on offer in the work of the thirteen Americans, three Germans, and one Colombian—nine women and eight men—and those to be found come freighted with rankling self-consciousness or, here and there, a nonchalance that verges on contempt. The ruling insight that Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it. In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Hoptman posits a post-Internet condition, in which “all eras seem to exist at once,” thus freeing artists, yet also leaving them no other choice but to adopt or, at best, reanimate familiar “styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas.” The show broadcasts the news that substantial newness in painting is obsolete.

Opening the show, in the museum’s sixth-floor lobby, are large, virtuosic paintings on paper by the German Kerstin Brätsch, which recall Wassily Kandinsky and other classic abstractionists. Brätsch encases many of her paintings in elaborate wood-and-glass frames that are leaned or stacked against a wall. The installation suggests a shipping depot of an extraordinarily high-end retailer. Next, there is a wall of six canvases by the American Joe Bradley, who, at the age of thirty-nine, has been hugely successful with dashing pastiches of circa-nineteen-eighties Neo-Expressionist abstraction. His pictures here are swift sketches in grease pencil that a child not only could do but has likely already done, such as a stick figure, the Superman insignia, a number (“23”), or a lone drifting line. How little can a painting be and still satisfy as a painting? Very little, Bradley ventures. After straining for a sterner response to the works, I opted to relax and like them.
Kerstin Brätsch, “Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)” (2011).
CreditCourtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Disarming, too, is the show’s youngest artist, the twenty-eight-year-old Colombian art-market phenomenon Oscar Murillo, who shows stitched-together, furiously scribbled and slathered, uncannily elegant abstractions somewhat in the vein of early Robert Rauschenberg. In addition to the canvases that are stretched and hung on the walls, several lie loose and heaped on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to rummage through them, pick them up, and inspect them. (This provides a definite frisson—you’re playing with paintings by someone whose works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars—enhanced by the clayey odor of fresh oil stick.) The American Josh Smith, a year younger than his friend Bradley, joins him in testing the world’s tolerance for shambling improvisation. Fantastically prolific, he creates series of bravura paintings, all of them five feet high, four feet wide, with motifs that include monochromes, kitschy tropical sunsets, kitschy memento mori (skulls and skeletons), and his own signature. What is painting for? Smith’s answer stops a winsome step short of nihilism: something more or less lively to hang on a wall. As with Bradley, resistance to Smith is understandable but, in the end, too tiring to maintain.

Painters of a more conventionally serious stamp are on hand. The most distinctly original is the forty-six-year-old American Mark Grotjahn. His palette-knife patterning, packed and energized in smoldering colors, yields tensions that you can feel in your gut. Grotjahn’s art may not be about much beyond the pleasures of his mastery, but it is awfully good. More symptomatic of Hoptman’s thesis of “atemporality” are works by the Americans Julie Mehretu and Amy Sillman. Mehretu, forty-four, rose to fame, and a MacArthur Fellowship, in the past decade with exhaustingly complex compositions of overlaid marks and diagrams, which seemed bent on mirroring our cybernetic age in total. To my relief, she appears to have abandoned that conceit in order to liberate her inner abstract lyricist, with skittery gray paintings that pay candid and exhilarating homage to Cy Twombly. Sillman, fifty-nine, revisits modern-arty looks, from around 1940, by the likes of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, to which she adds mainly the assurance of knowing, as they could not, that they were on a right track.

If one modern master haunts “Forever Now,” it is Sigmar Polke, who, from the early nineteen-sixties until his death, in 2010, ran painting through wringers of caustic irony and giddy burlesque. He hovers at the shoulders of the two most impressive painters who befit Hoptman’s theme of present pastness, the German Charline von Heyl, fifty-four, and Laura Owens, forty-four, from Los Angeles. Heyl’s mixes and matches of elements of many styles forswear irony but take Polke’s restless eclecticism as a rule. Each stages a more or less successful struggle to tame a wild mental landscape. The quicksilver Owens contributes two rather precious new works—bagatelles, really—that feature perfunctory touches of paint on silk-screened reproductions of an advertisement for bird feeders and of a notebook page bearing a sarcastic fairy tale written out in a child’s guileless hand. But be sure to spend time with her large abstraction, an untitled work from 2013, hanging in MOMA’s ground-floor lobby: gestural glyphs and splotches in white, black, green, and orange on a ground imprinted with a blown-up page of newspaper want ads. It is almost off-handedly majestic and preternaturally charming, and my favorite work in the show. It suggests Polke mistaking himself for Joan Miró.

It will surprise many, as it did me, that “Forever Now” is the first large survey strictly dedicated to new painting that MOMA has organized since 1958, when “The New American Painting,” a show of seventeen artists, including all the major Abstract Expressionists, went on to tour Europe and to revolutionize art everywhere. Hoptman clearly considered the echo, presenting the same number of painters—except that this group bodes little change in art anywhere, that being a melancholy mark of its pertinence today. But even more arresting is the mere occurrence of the show at MOMA. Hoptman strives to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work. The effort seems futile, at least in the short run.

You can see the painters in “Forever Now” reacting to the dilemma of an image-making art struggling to stand out in an image-sickened society—“Filled with fancies and empty of meaning,” as Eliot went on from his line about distraction. The artists’ tactics include emphases on gritty materiality and refusals of comforting representation. It’s a strong show, and timely. But its own terms make it more expressive of honest discontent than of inspiring invention. Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal. ♦

==

WALL STREET JOURNAL

Reshuffling, Not Reinventing

Breaking no new ground, a show at the Museum of Modern Art merely recycles received wisdom, with artists who are market-vetted and gallery-approved.

New York

In the Museum of Modern Art’s long-anticipated exhibition “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a showcase of about 100 works by 17 living artists, you will encounter Richard Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” (2010-11). A mixed-media muddle roughly 7 feet tall by 5 feet wide, the mostly white painting comprises a big, derisively Franz Kline-like black rectangle, adjacent to two smaller splotches of pale red and violet, with some drips, smudges and squiggles.

‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. ENLARGE
‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York. Photo: Farzad Owrang

According to the show’s curator, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman, Mr. Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” exemplifies the zeitgeist of the new millennium’s Internet-driven “atemporality,” a term coined in 2003 by science-fiction writer William Gibson. Her theory is that in our globalized, “atemporal” world—in which artists always have access to everything on the Web—hierarchies, timelines, meanings, distinctions and histories dissolve. Today’s irreverent, ransacking artists, Ms. Hoptman explains in the show’s catalog and wall text, are “self-identified cultural pirates…contemporary Dr. Frankensteins” who, “taking advantage of this avalanche of information…reanimate, reenact, or sample elements from the past without a trace of parody or nostalgia, challenging them to be relevant again in our ‘endless digital Now,’ as Gibson has described our time.”

How does open-ended “atemporality” rear its head in “Angie Adams/Franz Kline”? The wall label clarifies: The painting refers to “pop culture and art history simultaneously, in effect leveling any hierarchy between them. Angie Adams is a name Aldrich misheard in a Kanye West song that he listened to while making this painting.”

Elsewhere, Mary Weatherford slaps bright neon tubes over pastiches of Color Field painting. According to the catalog, these derivative artworks supposedly “reanimate” American abstraction and the “neon-flecked nights in New York.” Joe Bradley’s childish linear scrawls—of a cross, a stick figure, the number “23” and the Superman logo, respectively—in grease pencil on large white canvases, are said, by Ms. Hoptman, to “thwart time,” as they sample Abstract Expressionism, Carl Jung’s archetypes, Paleolithic cave painting, comics and emoticons.

Matt Connors “reenacts” painting styles “plucked” from abstract sources as diverse as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Lewis. Imagine enormous hard-edged planes of pure color, fudged here and there with splatters and drips. Also mashing up styles is Nicole Eisenman, who borrows from African art, German Expressionism and pop culture. Catalog text explains that her large “Feminist” paintings of masklike male heads riff on tribal art, as they subvert early 20th-century Modernists and today’s “masculine archetype, preoccupied with technology, money, and status.” Ms. Eisenman’s “Breakup” (2011) depicts a cartoonish, clownish man staring at his smartphone.

Performing what Ms. Hoptman refers to as “a kind of self-cannibalism,” Oscar Murillo recycles his own work, cutting up and sewing together remnants of earlier paintings, refuting notions about progress. Three of Mr. Murillo’s stretched canvases, influenced by graffiti and Jean-Michel Basquiat, hang on the wall, while eight more lie, unstretched, in a heap on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to unfold and examine, move and manhandle the floor works, which, we are told, “are indistinguishable from the ones on the wall in terms of quality.” (I won’t argue with that.) This process purportedly “breaks down the border between the studio and the outside world.”

‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. ENLARGE
‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Courtesy Mark Grotjahn/Douglas M. Parker Studio

To anyone who has consistently followed contemporary painting, a medium that has been under attack as irrelevant for decades now—increasingly so recently, in the wake of digital art—none of this work will come as a shock. The artists in “Forever Now” superficially recycle ideas that go all the way back to Dada, Pop art—especially Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines”—Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Dada and Postmodernism. To her credit, Ms. Hoptman has chosen artists who actually touch their paintings—as opposed to producing them mechanically or digitally. But she has created a show neither visually nor conceptually engaging. Worse, the most compelling paintings here, Mark Grotjahn’s energetic abstractions that rehash the work of American Modernists Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella and Alfred Jensen, are pigeonholed to illustrate the curatorial proposition—which is inherently flawed.

It contends that artists today are different from 20th-century artists. Ms. Hoptman believes that past artists thought of art as progressing linearly—evolving—that they looked at art history in terms of a timeline. This viewpoint strikes me more as that of an art historian than of an artist. Let’s not forget that it was Picasso who said: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

Picasso, the first and greatest-ever mashup artist, took from other artists, too. But he did not borrow, sample and remix. He stole. Stealing—as opposed to borrowing—stresses ownership. “The Forever Now” artists merely reshuffle, rather than reinvent, the art of the past.

The other major problem with this exhibition is that it breaks no new ground. Almost all of its artists are blue-chip gallery- and market-approved. In effect, “The Forever Now” is a recycling of the perceived wisdom of New York’s most prominent galleries, as well as that of other museums. This show, the first survey of new painting MoMA has mounted since 1958, says a lot about the museum’s stance on contemporary painting—which is grim, to say the least. It may seem backward—nostalgic—to pine for the old days, but MoMA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Dorothy Miller trawled artists’ studios, building shows from the ground up. “The Forever Now” feels top-down.

When MoMA reopened a decade ago, after the enormous renovation, expansion and reinstallation of its stellar permanent collection, it was made perfectly clear that its curators wanted to weigh in more on contemporary art. The big question for some of us was how, exactly, the museum with the greatest holdings of Modern art in the world would balance that collection against contemporary art. What would happen when Modernism and Postmodernism collided?

“The Forever Now,” which identifies contemporary strategies, not great contemporary paintings, turns its back on—if not mocks—MoMA’s superb permanent collection. This is not a show that values, deepens and extends excellence in art, but one, instead, that celebrates lessening attention spans, careerist trends and a blatant, blanketing dismissal of the past. This exhibition identifies, celebrates and panders to contemporary art’s lowest common denominator. “The Forever Now”—hell-bent on the moment—repositions MoMA as a follower, not a leader. Forever “now,” it is a show that tomorrow most likely will forget.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

 

FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

January 5, 2015 6:23 pm

The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, 'Still Life' (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, 'Carlotta' (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

In The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

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In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.


Until April 5, moma.org

====

ft.com > Life&Arts > Arts >
Visual Arts

January 5, 2015 6:23 pm
The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

Ariella Budick
MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)
I

n The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

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FirstFT is our new essential daily email briefing of the best stories from across the web

In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.
Until April 5, moma.org

MUSEUMSWEEKEND

The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, prompted thoughts of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though I’m not sure how much acceptance there is in the end.

This particular reaction was due to a particular experience of the show, which began with reading the press release a few minutes before heading up the escalator to MoMA’s sixth floor to see the actual art. The statement, which is a single-spaced, four-page reduction of the catalogue essay by Laura Hoptman, one of the show’s two curators (the other is Margaret Ewing), painted a picture (to use a term advisedly) of an exhibition that seemed nothing if not dry, rigid and academic.

The term “atemporality” is taken from the science fiction writer William Gibson, who used it in 2003, according to Hoptman’s essay, “to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once. Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.”

The exhibition, in turn (according to the press release), is presenting art that embodies atemporality “through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form.”

Old wine in new bottles, some may say. Others might argue that the Museum of Modern Art is throwing its weight behind a narrow bandwidth of contemporary painting practice, one that revolves around the artwork as a mediated object referencing institutionally sanctioned styles. This footnoted approach fits all too well within the historical narrative that MoMA, despite its best efforts, has never been quite able to shake: that after representation was subsumed into abstraction, and abstraction was reduced to Minimalism, painting could only repeat itself. As Hoptman writes in her essay:

Abstraction is a language primed for becoming a representation of itself, because as much as it resists the attribution of specific meanings, the abstract mark cannot help but carry with it an entire utopian history of modern painting. […] It would be difficult to identify a contemporary abstract painter who is not self-consciously referring to that history.

Moreover, to uphold such Postmodernist strategies as “the reanimating of historical styles” and “sampling motifs” while supporting what sounds for all the world like classic Minimalism — “radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form” — is a contradictory stance. It may reflect the crazy-quilt visual environment in which we live, but it’s also a little crazy-making for the passionate observer — a premise that seems to play both ends against the middle while paradoxically ignoring what lies between those two extremes. This is where the stages of denial (of a narrowly parsed take on contemporary art) and anger (over the glibness of same) come in.

By associating atemporality, which is admittedly a very cool and potentially useful term, with the reuse or revival of past styles (characterized by neologisms like retromania and hauntology), the exhibition is affirming the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new — aka painting is dead — a mindset reinforced by the subheads and “corollaries” in Hoptman’s essay: Nostalgia; Frankenstein’s Monster; Cannibalism.

But upon reaching the sixth floor, all that changed. The first thing that hits you is the stack of very large, very aggressive paintings by Kerstin Brätsch, which are leaning against the walls on either side of the entrance to the exhibition — compositions that look like Georgia O’Keeffe gone off the deep end, with crabbed, thorny, branch-like forms and other ominous but less definable shapes skittering around a central, intensely pigmented, haloed disk.

Walk through the entrance, and you’re confronted with a double-height black wall filled with Joe Bradley’s casual scrawls of grease pencil on canvas. They look splendid. Turn around, and there are Rashid Johnson’s heavily impastoed and scarified works in black soap and wax, and in your peripheral vision, the playfully brooding paintings of Michaela Eichwald — one small, expressionistic portrait and two large, long, loopy abstractions.

Suddenly, what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape.

We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work.

But then you venture deeper into the show, and while the visual spectacle makes it is easy to forget (or, more accurately, to be confused about) which one of the four points outlined in the press release (Reanimation; Reenactment; Sampling; The Archetype) is being made among the exhibition’s various alcoves, the work in aggregate begins to wear thin.

Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.”

In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”

In its insistence that painting is a closed system, the exhibition falls apart. This is the fourth stage, depression. Julie Mehretu’s big canvases in acrylic, ink and graphite may relate to automatic writing and “seem to channel mid-century calligraphic abstractions by artists like Michaux and Twombly.” But even if they achieve “a result as distinct from theirs as one person’s signature is from another,” as the essay claims, the works do not make much of an impression. Nor do Michael Williams’ busy, cartoonish amalgams of digital printing, airbrushed lines and loaded, meandering, Terry Winters-esque strokes. In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street.

But then you look around again, and certain paintings stand out, not for any other reason than their presence as worked-over objects. And this allows for a degree of acceptance, the fifth of the five stages, although the constant echo of the show’s restricted premise makes those pieces feel as beleaguered and isolated as they are individuated.

There’s Charline von Heyl’s “Concetto Spaziale” (2009), titled after Lucio Fontana’s series of slashed canvases, but in its dazzling array of lines and wedges in yellow and black against a purplish gray field, it’s miles away from the Italian painter’s reductive gestures (which are in fact recapitulated in the show by the deconstructed canvases of Dianna Molzan).

Mark Grotjahn’s untitled “Circus” paintings from 2012 and ’13 — complexly tessellated, dazzlingly colored, high-speed collisions of spirals, loops and arcs — are highlights of the show, but their references to faces or masks (evidenced by indications of nostrils sprouting in the lower midsection of the canvases) signal a weakness in my view — they would be much more resonant as pure abstractions — but the allusions are what the show wishes to underscore, with Grotjahn’s wall of three “Circus” works facing off with Nicole Eisenman’s wall of three moon-headed “Guy” portraits, “Whatever Guy” (2009), “Guy Racer” and “Guy Capitalist” (both 2011).

Matt Connors’ enormous (216 × 132 inches), tripartite “Variable Foot” (2014) in red, blue and yellow (shades of Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns), along with Kerstin Brätsch’s large-scale installation, “Sigi’s Erben (Agate Psychics)” (2012), comprised of agates, glass, masks, and painted aluminum, go a long way toward supplying the exhibition’s wow factor, though Connors’ other works are contrarily, exceedingly modest in their ambitions.

Amy Sillman turns to Neo-Cubist semi-abstraction in her four contributions to the show, but one of them, “Still Life 1” (2013-14), goes beyond the blunt, linear forms of the other three, wandering into a place that’s weightier, darker, more layered and mysterious. Richard Aldrich is another artist with one painting that leaves his other, more desultory work behind: it’s a small, aqua, scraped and scarred oil and wax on panel from 2006, “Blue Sea Old Wash.” At 14 1/2 × 11 inches, it’s the smallest thing in the room, but it pulls your eyes immediately toward it.

With his renderings of palm trees, insects, fish and his own outsized signature, Josh Smith makes a splash in the final gallery with nine, big, juicy, colorful paintings on a single wall (painted black, like Joe Bradley’s at the entrance, forming a kind of bookend to the show), while Laura Owens’ text-based works seem to retreat into hermeticism. Neither Mary Weatherford nor Oscar Murillo appear able to escape their antecedents (Mario Merz, Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman for Weatherford; Robert Rauschenberg for Murillo), but in the exhibition’s inverted logic, that may be a plus.

And yet, there’s acceptance. The Forever Now is a show that should be seen and argued with. Its highly specific focus provides a flint to strike sparks and sharpen nails, a useful “this, not that,” which helps to clarify issues even where its assumptions are mistaken. For an exhibition like this, the trick is to light a path without erasing the shadows.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5, 2015.

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NEW YORK MAGAZINE

‘The Forever Now’ Is MoMA’s Market Moment

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal WorldInstallation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at MoMA. John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art arrives, curated by Laura Hoptman, at a moment when painting is in an astonishingly conflicted but promising abysm of wakefulness. A group show about this stirring medium, atthis moment and in the very House of Modernism, sends shock waves through the art world — anointing artists, starting arguments, performing operatically contested desires and new standards. It’s the kind of thing that friends stop being friends over. Or that’s what shows like “The Forever Now” used to be — when time moved slower, information wasn’t instantly accessible everywhere at once, museums were codifiers and curators defending their absolute power positively, or ridiculously. I’m not nostalgic for the dreaded age of curator-bullies, and now that galleries and biennials do most of the codifying, I love that museums have the luxury of time to sift through things rather than react to every twist of aesthetic fate (although too many museums are trying to be like galleries — more on that later). “The Forever Now” is handsome, professional, well intentioned, and has moments that take the breath away. I’m a fan and was an early advocate of a third of its 17 artists. Yet, overall, “The Forever Now” doesn’t capture enough of painting’s pangs, conflict, promise, or current astonishment at its position. Most of all, with a handful of exceptions, the show fails to make a case for the exceptional quality, or truly new character, of contemporary painting; For long stretches, it instead settles for showcasing its ubiquitous presence. If MoMA is the Ferrari of Modernist museums, “The Forever Now” is driving it like a Prius: something made to have minimum impact on the environment while making people feel okay about something troubling.

How did this happen? Hoptman is nobody’s fool. Highly admired, even loved in the art world, she is a lucid thinker and writer and has long been a remarkably perceptive curator, among the first proponents of early-1990s artists like John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Elizabeth Peyton, Gabriel Orozco, and Chris Ofili. I count myself lucky to call her a friend and to have known her for more than 25 years. The roster of artists she has chosen is revealing. Thirteen of the artists in “The Forever Now” are American; all but one of the rest are from Germany. Age-wise, there’s a 30-year spread with Amy Sillman being almost 60 and Oscar Murillo nearly 30. This is not a show to define a generation, since the artists are not of a generation as that term has typically been used. Instead, they are all participants in a cultural moment, in which painting has come to reign supreme, defined by virtuosic newness, of course, but more and more by the basic stylistic sameness valued by the art market and the art fair in particular. To those in the art world, the list of included artists will seem familiar, almost a lineup of acceptable artists and market darlings, many of whom are represented by major spaces or megagalleries like David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Marian Goodman. (Although a few do not fall into this category.) Many have had museum retrospectives. It’s not the fault of the curator, but most of these artists already fetch enormous prices — some in the millions of dollars — for their work. Indeed, the show’s opening found dealers and art advisers parked in front of artist’s work taking sales orders, as if at an art fair.

That feels odd. The job of forging art history over the last 100 years has probably always been in the hands of galleries and artists more than in museums. But it’s in galleries (and art fairs) more now than ever. This is how it should be, but it has had a deleterious effect of late, causing some curators to transform themselves into Grand Guignol showmen specializing in big productions and spectacle, arriving at every art event, moving on to the next, and in between making atrium exhibitions, film screenings, and the like. Other curators contract, demonizing anything successful or of the art world and embrace a kind of Curatorial Correctness — specializing in the rediscovery of the assistants of famous artists or other overlooked makers of the recent past (in other words, safer, quieter projects that make fewer grand claims about what is new or newly important). Some say that the market has taken over everything. There was a panel this week titled “Zombie Formalism,” the term for precisely this kind of look-alike abstraction. Painter Walter Robinson who coined the term, remarked, “If bad abstraction is the problem then the virus spreading it is money.” It’s true — the market loves abstraction as an easy-on-the-eyes investment and surefire sign of being avant-garde and radical. But Hoptman is too good a curator, with too much integrity, to ever follow the whims of the market. Yet so many of the artists in “The Forever Now” are critically or market approved that the exhibition has the feel of the validation of the inevitable. How does this happen, and what does it mean? Maybe it’s that curatorial impulses and market judgments are no longer separate enough that it makes sense to talk about one or the other taking over.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

Hoptman writes in the catalogue that “the seventeen artists in this show are stalwart practitioners of painting qua painting.” For those not conversant in art-speak, “painting qua paintingmeans, technically, painting as painting. What it seems to mean to those in the art world is painting about painting. Or painting about the processes of making paintings; or about the history of making paintings; or maybe about painting’s modes, compositional approaches, color theories, materials, marks, and subject matters. Or something. Frankly, this is not all that different from what we used to simply call “abstract painting.” And in fact, it’s not hard to see the painting collected here, and the broader painting universe from which it’s drawn, partly as an expression of some nostalgia about earlier eras, when experiments with form seemed to offer something like truly radical content. (There are numerous gestural similarities to the painting of the Abstract Expressionists and the Neo-Expressionists.) Not to say these painters would necessarily acknowledge any of that; I suspect that each one of the included artists would emphatically say that his or her work is not “qua” painting but just painting.

As for what the show says, its subtitle is “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.Atemporal refers to the conceit that all artistic styles — from cave painting to Pop Art back to Impressionism and Chinese ink drawings — are current, because we see them in the present, a present that collapses the sprawling palimpsest of history and geography into the flat screens of our smartphones. In this view, painterly styles, schools, and gestures all exist free from the limitations of time, history, and, perhaps especially, Modernism’s imperious dictate about always having to change style in order to be Modern, novel, and worthy. All art has always come from other art, and artists have always dug into, repurposed, and outright stolen from and made styles, tendencies, and approaches their own. But the conceit of “The Forever Now” is, I think, that something is different now, that Modernism’s incessant ever-forward march seems so last century, so debunked, and with the combined knowledge of the known universe essentially in our pockets, more artists know about more art than ever before. This is probably true. And because of that, the title suggests, they are making art that, for once, isn’t about taking the next step forward in art history. I think.

But let’s put aside the rhetoric and look at what the show itself tells us. As is often the case with MoMA these days, “The Forever Now” is wedged into too little space. Paintings are hung salon-style, wedged in, given attenuated spaces and little bins, or installed near the top of tall walls meant only for showing the work of Richard Serra. It would have been better had Hoptman been allowed to do 17 one-month one-person shows of each one of these artists somewhere in MoMA to really drill down into their own ideas and make a real statement.

Looking around at the statements made by what has been hung, Laura Owens, Nicole Eisenman, Michael Williams, Michaela Eichwald, Kerstin Bratsch, and Joe Bradley all impress. (Josh Smith does, too, although this may have to do with all of his work being jammed together on one wall and generating this massive graphic impact.) Bradley’s gigantic squiggles and doodles really have grandeur while simultaneously producing a shock of incredulity at how simple and unfinished looking art is, but how powerful of presence. Similarly, Bratsch’s giant paintings on paper encased in steel and glass frames leaned against the walls outside the show’s entrance look like grossly enlarged book end-papers adorned with crenellated turrets of iridescent paint and colorful aigrette crowns gone mad. I love them. Ditto Eichwald’s pliable brown and black Formica-like surfaces of stains, marks, shapes, and scrapes, which have the feel of having gone through excremental fire and survived.

I relish the ropy sluicing surfaces of Mark Grotjahn, but his great paintings seem more excellently old-school than newly atemporal. Stalwarts like Amy Sillman, happy inclusion Mary Weatherford, and Charlene Von Heyl come off well. Von Heyl is, to my eye, the most influential artist in art schools today (almost every student loves to mix up different styles, spaces, and gestures in individual canvasses), but one who is falling into the predictable habit of making all the parts of her painting different. Sillman supplies brushy mid-century-like figurative-abstractions à la de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Guston. It is a style that is easy to be bad at, and one I don’t often pay much attention to, but in Sillman’s accomplished hands looks strong and also original of color. There are the physically powerful, otherwise bland, almost-monochromes of Rashid Johnson. And some pulled-apart paintings by Dianna Molzan — certainly not a “market approved” artist, as I don’t think she even has a New York gallery — are placeholders for all the generic deconstructivist art (torn or otherwise attacked canvases, exposed stretcher bars, etc.) that’s all the rage. And endlessly boring. Matt Connors, whom I’m usually not a fan of and who is the show’s token Zombie Formalist, looks fantastic here with a gigantic, leaning three-panel painting that is Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden made by Richard Serra. It is painting as architectural fact. International art star and market phenom Oscar Murillo shows his impressive Schnabel-like touch and wonderful color in works that are warm and would look lovely in any living room. Beyond that, they are only elegant. Speaking of which, Julie Mehretu, whose handsome work strikes me as merely decorative, makes a welcome move here. Brava. The problem is that now she’s making sooty Cy Twomblys.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

So: There is good painting in “The Forever Now.” Very good. Some great. (The show’s last wall of Michael Williams finds an artist so adept at creating complex surfaces that it’s hard to even fix our focus on them.) But it is far too narrow in its focus, giving us only one known strain of contemporary painting that, while shadow-dancing with various methods of reproduction and processes, is all more or less handmade and mostly abstract. That’s it. What does all this abstract atemporality and gestural painting add up to? In the case of the artists I don’t like, I’d say that dipping into any and all styles of painting and abstraction is a way not to address the anxieties that now exist around painting in general and abstraction specifically. It’s become a kind of shelter and sanctuary where instead of making old ideas new (as many artists do now), these artists make old ideas palatable, unthreatening, un-conflicted. Or they make paintings that look like edgy hard-core abstraction, deploying fields of black or monochrome paint; Polke, Richter, or Oehlen–like effects; splashes; all-over composition; switching styles willy-nilly within works. These are all familiar signals that say to viewers and buyers, “I know I’m an abstract painting, but the fact that I know that means that I’m cool and you knowing that I know it makes you cool too. Plus, I’m not crass like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Like me.” It’s both too confident and too needy. I call this assertive negative content — art whose primary content is what it’s not. And it’s a startling statement that this negative content is so appealing to people (collectors especially) right now.

But what is truly missing here is the sense of painterly anxiety. Not enough of “The Forever Now” lets us in on the storms gathering in the medium, where there is an epic struggle going on, not in spite of the disappearance of modernism’s teleology but precisely because painters working today have had that universe of possibilities collapse on them. On the one hand, artists are ultra-aware of and therefore in an ironical position to painting’s processes, endless tropes, styles, ideas, and, therefore, their own work. Perhaps it’s been ever thus, but it’s more thus than ever. An artist using Day-Glo color today is also using Warhol; every brushstroke references a hundred other artists; painting on fabric might be Polke, Kippenberger, Salle, Oehlen. And so on — not absolutely, not every time, not intentionally, even, but it’s there. History and style are now extra-active content.

If that were that, we’d be dealing only with self-conscious work. The complication is that while artists are in this ironical position to painting, to them their work is not ironic at all — in fact, it is completely, utterly sincere. Today, artists have an almost Romantic relationship to their own work — even if it is made in a time when they are as self-aware as almost never before. This is because the need to make art and the drive to be an artist still run as deep as ego and insecurity towers high. The tension that now exists between these two previously opposed, now concurrent states, is fusing in some new powerful emotion of being at once sincere and ironic. It is a new interior emotion and the tremendously productive chasm and chaos alive in painting and much art today. I’m thinking, for example, of the blasted-looking abstract paintings of Lucy Dodd; the scorching color and rash repeating orders of Katherine Bernhardt; the erratic organization and Eros of Keltie Ferris; the maybe-too-pretty but hobbled Modernism of Patricia Treib; the all-out discontentedness and retinal attack of Bjarne Melgaard; the insane glutted flat surfaces of Borna Sammak.

While I like a lot of the artists in this show, the exhibition as a whole fails to deliver up the restless interiority, forming intellectual constructions, and exigencies that this split is producing. There are places beyond just using abstraction as a cruise ship or tasting menu. These places can be glimpsed in “The Forever Now.” But the show doesn’t venture far enough into this charged, pathos-filled, maybe magisterial arsenal of internal and historical anxiety, insatiable introspection, and outward amplitude. If art really has broken free of time and history — more of the art in “The Forever Now” would not cling to or look like so many of its known safe lifelines. More of this art would not look like what more and more art looks like. That’s why I love the artists I love in this show, and even more why I love all of the artists I love who are not in this show. I almost don’t know what to call what they’re making now or how to see it — except with my nerves.

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HAMPTONS ART HUB

This weekend allows members of MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) with a first look at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World.” The show officially opens on December 14, 2014 and continues through April 05, 2015 on the sixth floor of the museum in the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Gallery. The show presents the work of 17 artists whose work manifests a timeless that alludes qualities that could identify the work as being of a specific or current time period, according to the museum.

The condition of atemporal (or timelessness) was first noted by science fiction writer William Gibson, who used the term to describe a cultural product of our moment that paradoxically doesn’t represent the time from which it comes, according to MoMA. In painting, the concept results in a “historical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of new form is nowhere to be found, and all eras co-exist.”

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"Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)" by Kerstin Brätsch. 2011. Oil on paper, 110 × 72 inches. Tony and Elham Salamé. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Copyright the artist. Photo by Filippo Armellin.

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"Divot" by Matt Connors, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 48 × 36 inches. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo by Andy Keate.

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This mixing of past styles and genres is a hallmark of our “moment in time” in painting with artists reanimating historical styles or creating contemporary versions, sampling motifs from across 20th-century art and comingling in a single painting or an oeuvre, or paring their visual language to archetypal forms, explained MoMA.

The exhibition presents works by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams.

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"Carlotta" by Charline von Heyl, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 82 x 76 inches. Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by  Jason Mandella.

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"6" by Oscar Murillo, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas, 7' 2 ¼” x 6’ 13/16." Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo by Matthew Hollow.

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The artists represent a wide variety of styles and impulses but all use the painted surface where genres intermingle, morph, and collide. “The work represents traditional painting, in the sense that each artist engages with painting’s traditions, testing and ultimately reshaping historical strategies like appropriation and bricolage and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions surrounding notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence,” states the museum.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

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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). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art.

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SLIDE SHOW|9 Photos

‘Forever Now’

 

‘Forever Now’

CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

 

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” has been a long time coming. The Museum of Modern Art has steadily been acquiring new painting, as a visit to its website will confirm. But for years it has disdained actually saying anything about the state of the medium in exhibition form, and all the while painting has developed actively on numerous fronts.

“The Forever Now,” which opens Sunday and is organized by Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, considers some of those changes, and it does so with a normal combination of successes and shortcomings, including a lack of daring. Its thesis hinges on the word atemporal, inspired by “atemporality,” which was coined by the science fiction writer William Gibson in 2003. The idea is that, especially in the digital era, culture exists in a state of simultaneity, where all of history is equally available for use.

It could be argued that simultaneity is nothing new: It was once the definition of postmodernism; it also describes the ways artists selectively consider past art alive and useful, and can be a cover for simple derivativeness — a condition not entirely absent from the exhibition.

The terrain the show stakes out is diverse and fairly recent, but also very familiar: The 17 artists represented here are all known, mostly market-approved entities familiar to anyone who follows contemporary art even casually. Nearly all the participants possess résumés dotted with solo shows in smaller museums and at blue-chip galleries, here and abroad; 12 of the artists are already represented in MoMA’s collection.

In short, this exhibition looks far too tidy and well behaved, much as you might fear a show of recent painting at the Modern would look: validating the already validated and ready for popular consumption. For the majority of the museum’s visitors who rarely set foot in commercial galleries, the show may hold surprises and even mild frissons of shock.

And this exhibition may also exceed the expectations even of gallery-scene regulars. Against the odds, it is surprisingly engaging. It gives you plenty to look at, which has become something of a rarity with shows of recent art at the Modern. (It’s when you consider what else could be here that the problems begin.)

The show is actually less predictable than the list of names would imply. It helps that there are new works by several artists. Some, like Julie Mehretu, have pushed into new territory (in her case, from drawing closer to painting, of a decidedly Twombly-esque sort).

If you focus intently, you can get an expanded appreciation of some of the artists. The much ballyhooed young painter Oscar Murillo, for example, shows several reasonably promising new paintings, albeit all lent by one of his galleries, which should have been avoided.

Although it occupies galleries that are too small for close to 100 pieces, the show has been smartly installed. The sequence of works and the conversation about current painting that it presents in real space is one of its primary strengths. It is arranged in largely contrapuntal exchanges between extremes: spare and labor-intensive; little or no color and lots of it; improvisation and deliberation; and riffs on Minimalism and reconsiderations of Expressionism, both abstract and figurative. And in plotting this conversation, Ms. Hoptman makes highly effective use of the narrow, dead-end space at her disposal, dividing it crosswise with walls, including four free-standing ones.

Consequently, artists drop in and out of sight, and different ones are prominent, when you retrace your steps, as you must. The work of Josh Smith, possibly the most rough-edged artist here, is (perhaps deliberately) invisible until you reach the show’s final space and turn around. Mr. Smith’s nine canvases insouciantly sum up the show’s no-holds-barred attitude, tripping the light fantastic with works variously monochrome, gestural and figurative, as well as a kitschy sunset and the artist’s signature, writ goofily large.

The contrasts among artists are sometimes so glaring they seem sure to set even a novice’s mind in motion. At the entrance, the large elaborately textured and tinted, latently Symbolist paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch — which suggest masses of rustling silks or feathers — flank a wall of works from which they could not be more different: Joe Bradley’s emblems simply outlined in grease pencil on raw canvas, redolent of children’s drawings. But the rich detail of Ms. Brätsch’s works attunes you to the unexpected subtleties of Mr. Bradley’s bare-bones approach. The rudimentary perpendicular forms of his “On the Cross,” for example, are enhanced by repeated diagonal creases in the canvas, intimating the wrapping of a bandage, a shroud or swaddling.

Rashid Johnson’s voluptuous black paintings, whose thick graffitilike marks are scrawled into a mix of wax and black soap with a broom handle, confront the more delicate and colorful improvisations of Michaela Eichwald, which look impressive but more decorous than usual.

After that comes a conversation about carefully but thickly applied paint that is one of the show’s best face-offs. To one side: Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife loops of color, which define a deep space but are also scattered with oblique features, and Nicole Eisenman’s forthright, masklike faces, laid on in thick, textured slabs of color. They recall the early modernist visages of Alexej von Jawlensky, but on a contemporary scale and with references to our political present: a raised (white) fist here, collages of African sculpture elsewhere.

Sometimes the show makes such clear points, you can get the impression that artists or works were chosen to fill slots, to demarcate positions as much as for themselves. You almost imagine Ms. Hoptman going down a punch list.

Interactive? Check: Mr. Murillo has an additional eight unstretched canvases on the floor that visitors can unfold and look at, like rugs at a bazaar.

Minimalism? Check: Matt Connors is represented by an immense three-panel work in sharp, non-primary hues of red, yellow and blue. Purposefully made so tall it can only lean against the wall, it evokes everything from Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” painting to Richard Serra’s steel plates.

Painting as deconstruction? Check: Dianna Molzan’s piquant explorations of canvas, stretcher and paint improve upon the French Surface/Support group of the 1960s.

Abject-art deprivation and the trendy “de-skilling”? Check. Richard Aldrich’s elegantly offhand works, one of which has strips of painted wood and canvas at right angles to the canvas.

His spare works face the excessive but smooth-surfaced paintings of Michael Williams, whose crazed, partly printed tapestries of color, cartoons and airbrushed lines make the digital and the handmade all but indecipherable. Mr. Williams ends the show on a very promising note.

There’s one way that “The Forever Now” is something of a landmark: Nine of its 17 artists are women. A large-group show that is over 50 percent female is beyond rare and sets a standard for other museums (and commercial galleries) to match.

Less cheering is this demographic detail: With one exception, all the older artists are women, all the younger are men. And only three are not white.

And yet it’s not just about numbers. This show also reminds us that a more open art world allows male and female artists alike to have inflated reputations, which I think is the case with Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl and Ms. Mehretu. They’re perfectly good painters, but no better than, say, Joanne Greenbaum, Dona Nelson, Sadie Benning and Katherine Bernhardt, any of whom might have disrupted the conversation here a bit more.

Another possibility would have been the irrepressible Mickalene Thomas. It’s great to think of her extravagant depictions of proud black women in this well-done but too-safe show.

It makes you wonder what’s so scary about surveys of current painting.

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CHRISTIE’S

10 questions about contemporary painting

10 questions about contemporary painting

Florence Waters quizzes Laura Hoptman, the curator of MOMA’s newest exhibition

A new MOMA exhibition, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, takes the pulse of painting right now, and explores how new techniques are colliding with old ideas and vice versa. Art Digest asked the curator, Laura Hoptman, what she’d learned from working with the show’s 17 carefully selected contemporary painters.
1. What is the first painting we see in the show?

Laura Hoptman: ‘The show begins with a display of a group of paintings by Joe Bradley, juxtaposed with two Cosmic Slop paintings by Rashid Johnson, and two mural size paintings by Michaela Eichwald. The first works one actually sees are a group of nine large paintings called Blocked Radiants by Kerstin Bratsch that serve as a kind of explosively beautiful introduction to the show and are located in the entrance area.’

2. Which painter from art history feels most present in the show?

‘I can’t say one, but certainly artists from the Modern period: from Kazimir Malevich and Picasso during his Cubist period, through the era of the 1960s hard edge abstraction.’

3. Can you sum up the thesis of the show in 10 words?

‘An exhibition of work that reminds us of many eras past, and because of that, offers a very contemporary take on the culture of the ‘aughties.’

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011.
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14.

4. That’s 26 words but we’ll let that slide. Is expressionism dead?

‘Of course not!’

5. Ok, so is painting having a moment?

‘Artists are always painting, and the public is always looking at what people paint. Painting might be having a moment in the art market, but I wouldn’t say that there are any more (or fewer) artists making wonderful, life changing paintings now, than say, 10 or 15 years ago.’

6. Are painters currently looking inward or outward?

‘That’s the beauty of an atemporal cultural universe. You’ve got it all: inward, outward, Warhol, Pollock, Picasso, Polke, all at the same time.’

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012.

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013.
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012.

7. Does painting now always require paint? We’re thinking of Hockney’s iPad pictures in particular.

‘Of course not, though in this show, everyone touches the canvas at least a little bit.’

8. From your discussions with the painters, could you write a new dictionary of painting — the ‘i-brush’, for example?

‘Using technological means to ‘paint’ goes back almost 30 years to Paintbox technology that was developed in the 1970s. Some artists use airbrush on their paintings, and this is a similarly old technology, one brought to great heights by automobile, motorcycle, and surfboard makers.’

9. Are these ‘future directions’ directions of aesthetic beauty?

‘I think so. Others are free to disagree.’

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014.

10. Finally, did any thematic contradictions arise?

‘Sure; some artist re-enactors are also re-animators. Some who use so-called ‘primitive’ imagery are also deploying it in very complex ways that are in no way like cave painting. These are just two examples. There are plenty more. The show is meant to be porous and inquisitive. It is an argument but not like one that is presented in a court of law.’

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MOMA, New York from 14 December to 5 April, 2015

Main image: 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). Photograph by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 48 x 72 ins. (121.9 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and carlier | gebauer, Berlin. Copyright Julie Mehretu. Photograph by Tom Powel

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60 ins. (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas. 86 1/4 x 72 13/16 ins. (219 x 185 cm). Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo: Matthew Hollow

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012. Synthetic polymer paint, oil, crayon, and lacquer on cotton. 109 15/16 × 51 3/16 ins. (330 × 130 cm). Private collection, Rome. Courtesy dépendance, Brussels. Photograph by Gunter Lepkowski

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013. Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint, and oil stick on canvas. 115 3/8 x 119 7/8 ins. (349.3 x 304.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Enid A. Haupt Fund. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ins. (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photograph by Andy Keate

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014. Flashe paint with neon lights and transformer on linen. 117 3/8 × 104 1/4 × 5 7/8 ins. (298.1 × 264.8 × 14.9 cm). Collection Mandy and Cliff Einstein, Los Angeles. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen

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.

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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.

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  • Marcus, George E. 2003. “On the Unbearable Slowness of Being an Anthropologist Now: Notes on a Contemporary Anxiety in the Making of Ethnography.” Cross Cultural Poetics 12(12):7–20.
  • Marcus, George E. 2010. “Contemporary Fieldwork Aesthetics in Art and Anthropology: Experiments in Collaboration and Intervention.” Visual Anthropology 23:263–277.
  • Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fisher, eds. 1986. Anthropology as a Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Marcus, George E. and Fred R. Myers, eds. 1995. The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Miyazaki, Hirokazu and Annelise Riles. 2005. “Failure as an Endpoint.” Pp. 320–331 in Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, edited by Aihiwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Oiticica, Helio. [1966] 1999. “Position and Program.” Pp. 9–10 in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Malcolm Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Rabinow, Paul. 1996. Essays in the Anthropology of Reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Rabinow, Paul. 2008. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Rabinow, Paul. 2011. The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Rorimer, Ann. 1999. “Siting the Page: Exhibiting Works in Publications—Some Examples of Conceptual Art in the USA.” Pp. 11–26 in Rewriting Conceptual Art, edited by Michael Newman and John Bird. London: Reaktion Books.
  • Schneider, Arnd and Christopher Wright. 2006. Contemporary Art and Anthropology. Oxford: Berg.
  • Schneider, Arnd and Christopher Wright. 2010. Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice. Oxford: Berg.
  • Smith, Terry. 2009. What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stocking, George W. 1968. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: Free Press.
  • Stocking, George W., ed. 1993. Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  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.

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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

    Reviews of the Dazzling Anselm Kiefer Retrospective at the Royal Academy London

     

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    WALL STREET JOURNAL
    ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
    Britain’s Royal Academy Surveys Anselm Kiefer’s Work
    Preoccupied by politics and history, the German-born Anselm Kiefer is getting a retrospective at Britain’s Royal Academy

    Anselm Kiefer often uses unusual materials including straw and real blood to confront Germany’s past.DPA/Zuma Press

    image

    © Anselm Kiefer/Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida

     

    © Anselm Kiefer/Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

    © Anselm Kiefer/Collection Stedelijk Museum

    By MARY M. LANE CONNECT
    Sept. 18, 2014 4:09 p.m. ET
    The Works of Anselm Kiefer
    View Slideshow

    Anselm Kiefer often uses unusual materials including straw and real blood to confront Germany’s past. DPA/Zuma Press

    In the late 1960s, when German artist Anselm Kiefer was in his early 20s, he owned recorded speeches by Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich leaders. The Allies had distributed the recordings after World War II in a move to encourage reluctant Germans to confront their Nazi past.

    For Mr. Kiefer, now 69, the impassioned speeches acted as a trigger: He would use his art as a weapon to fight social amnesia. “Now you can turn on German TV and there’s likely to be a documentary about the war. When I was growing up in the 1960s you didn’t even talk about it,” says Mr. Kiefer.

    In 1969, wearing his father’s military uniform, the artist had himself photographed giving the banned Nazi salute and bound the photos along with Nazi-themed watercolors into two cardboard books. The performance launched a career that would remain dominated by Mr. Kiefer’s preoccupation with Germany’s past and the nation’s politics.

    Both books are part of a retrospective opening at London’s Royal Academy on Sept. 27 and running until Dec. 14. The exhibition documents how over 40 years the France-based artist has employed such materials as oil paints, straw and electrolyzed lead to convey his mostly grave messages.

    The Nazi salute quickly disappeared from his work, and some art in the show touches on more neutral themes, such as “Osiris and Isis,” a large 1985-87 work of oil and acrylic emulsion exploring the nuances of ancient Egyptian mysticism. But Mr. Kiefer has kept returning to Nazi Germany, albeit often in oblique ways. ” Georges Bataille : Blue of Noon,” a new set of watercolors and pencil on plaster, alludes to a prewar erotic novella by the 20th-century French writer in which a group of Hitler youths plays a peripheral role.

    “I hate that I’m using this clichéd phrase but he’s very much an ‘intellectual artist,'” says Kathleen Soriano, the show’s curator. Ms. Soriano, 51, says she decided against explanatory wall captions to avoid “hitting visitors over the head with all the meanings in the show” and limited such clarification to the catalog.

    Visitors unschooled in the artist’s obscure references may be left to focus on the artist’s often unconventional materials, both Mr. Kiefer and Ms. Soriano say. In “Parsifal III,” a 10-by-14-foot work on paper from 1973, Mr. Kiefer used a mixture of paint and blood. This image, which addresses Wagnerian themes adored by Hitler, aims to “rehabilitate” artists like Wagner from the blemish of Nazi worship, Mr. Kiefer says.

    A similar-size work, “Margarethe,” was created using gray and white paints mixed with straw Mr. Kiefer found in a cornfield. Mr. Kiefer says the work was inspired by the poem “Death Fugue” by Paul Celan, a Jewish poet jailed by the Nazis. “My art… changes not only because the materials like straw change over time, but also because since they concern themselves with history, the world views of those looking at it are unavoidably different as the decades pass,” he says.

    Ms. Soriano says she’s dedicating two rooms in the show, including the first, to Mr. Kiefer’s delicate watercolors. Mr. Kiefer’s Paris-based dealer Thaddaeus Ropac welcomes the move. Mr. Ropac, 54, only offered one watercolor in his latest exhibition. It sold for $65,000, far below the $650,000 to $5.8 million for large paintings. “The watercolors are still such virgin ground,” he says.

    As he awaits his retrospective, Mr. Kiefer says he can never begin to answer one question: Would he have been a Nazi? “Naturally I hope I would have said ‘I’m fighting against Hitler.’ But I can’t say for certain if I had lived then, what I would have done or decided.”

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    All my doubts about Anselm Kiefer are blown away by his Royal Academy show

    Plus: Why the Turner Prize should be abolished – and what could replace it
    ‘Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft)’, 1970, by Anselm Kiefer

    ‘Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft)’, 1970, by Anselm Kiefer

    Anselm Kiefer

    Royal Academy, until 14 December

    The Turner Prize 2014

    Tate Britain, until 4 January

    In the Royal Academy’s courtyard are two large glass cases or vitrines containing model submarines. In one the sea has receded, dried up, and the tin fish are stranded on the cracked mud of the ocean floor. In the other, the elegantly rusted subs are mostly suspended like sharks in an aquarium: a fleet in fact, all pointed in the same direction.

    These works are the visitor’s first sight of the vast and glorious exhibition by Anselm Kiefer (born Germany, 1945) currently occupying the main galleries of Burlington House, and they are apparently related to his interest in the Russian poet and futurist Velimir Khlebnikov. At once we are confronted by several Kiefer themes: war, poetry (he says poems are ‘like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next …without them, I am lost’), and Mesopotamian clay tablets. His very particular mix of history, imaginative transformation and high culture is thus succinctly introduced.

    There have been plenty of opportunities to see Kiefer’s work in Britain in recent decades (I well remember an impressive show of giant lead books at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in 1989), but I must admit that up to now I have remained equivocal about him. The Academy’s show has completely changed my mind. I have never seen Kiefer better presented, and in this exhibition his imagery and use of materials make perfect sense. The increasingly large works have been superbly laid out through the grand galleries, and their cumulative effect is not so much overwhelming as utterly convincing. This remarkable display makes a great argument for the monographic exhibition. Not all artists can survive this sort of exposure, some looking too repetitious or threadbare in extensive solo shows, but Kiefer’s work thrives on it, and the exhibition is a triumph.

    The first couple of rooms offer a kind of prologue of early work, introducing Kiefer’s abiding passion (since 1968) for artists’ books, his drawings and watercolours, and the wood-grain ‘Attic’ series of the 1970s. The exhibition really catches fire in room 3 with the increased scale and texture of the paintings, the inventive use of materials (clay, ash, earth, straw, dried sunflowers, scorched photos) and a certain salutary grimness of subject. Here the aggrandising tendency of Nazi architecture is squarely faced, the neoclassical stone structures built to last (and make fine ruins), as against the bricks of straw and the writing on the wall of the artist’s alternative reality. If some of the paintings look like dried-up river beds, suggesting drought and starvation, this is the other side to handsome prisons of the spirit.

    Kiefer uses the shape of a palette in his pictures to stand for himself, and I was reminded of Leonard Cohen’s lyric ‘like a bird on the wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir’ when looking at ‘Palette on a Rope’ in room 4, though there’s more than one bird on this particular wire, and they look decidedly flame-like. Room 5 contains just two enormous paintings: ‘Osiris and Isis’ on one side, decked out with copper wire and what looks like the fragments of a washbasin; ‘For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns’ is on the other, an achingly beautiful, desiccated landscape. The theme is death and resurrection, just one of the great linked polarities that Kiefer rarely shrinks from addressing.

    Burnt books, branches, roses — all are incorporated in one or other of the epic paintings on display here, many of which, despite their size, come from private collections. Kiefer has a genuine interest in the mystic life, and is as likely to explore the diamond-studded firmament as he is the fertile plain. In room 11, we find Kiefer in agrarian mode, evoking ‘a land, perpetually coming to harvest’ (Ronald Johnson: The Book of the Green Man). These intensely romantic images of fruitfulness are subverted by such things as a mantrap attached to the painting’s surface — a notable vagina dentata clearly echoing Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’ — old shoes or a set of primitive scales, along with volcanic stone and gold leaf. Since the death of the Catalan master Antoni Tàpies, Kiefer must be our leading artist-magus.

    Some people complain that they’re overburdened by the weight of reference in Kiefer’s paintings, the history, poetry and philosophy that inform his approach. I can only say that the viewer does not need to know or recognise its presence, nor feel inadequate before Kiefer’s learning. There is much to enjoy in his work on a purely formal level, but if you wish to explore the manifold layers of meaning below the surface, there’s even more to intrigue and savour. Then there are those who think his pictures rather rudimentary, exploiting texture and simple perspective and owing more to the mud and muck of the farmyard than to any alchemical (or artistic) transformation.

    Others admire his work but regret the industrial scale on which it now seems exclusively to operate, and suggest that you can get away with murder with an adoring international market and an army of assistants. But I have to say that such quibbles dwindle and vanish in the face of this beautifully installed exhibition. It is the art that has to convince us or condemn itself, and this is a breathtaking show, a real source of awe and wonder, probably the most astonishing event of the season.

    And it can be a pretty silly season too, as demonstrated by the media circus which is now the annual Turner Prize. When the prize was founded in 1984, it seemed to offer some hope of promoting excellence with such artists as Malcolm Morley and Richard Deacon winning in early years. But since the millennium, it has increasingly become the resort of installation and multimedia artists, not painters and sculptors, and this colonisation has resulted in a tragic loss of credibility. The new conceptual orthodoxy is nothing more than a current establishment fashion but its perpetrators and propagators seem bent on excluding more traditional forms of art.

    The problem is that the so-called experimental art showcased by the Turner Prize is so thoroughly passé that it merely recycles ideas thought new and original half-a-century ago. But the pundits of the media still find such stale stuff wonderfully controversial and diverting. To my mind, the unholy crop of films, wallpaper, slide projections, bad writing, flags, sociological reportage and relentless pretension that makes up this year’s shortlist is intensely depressing. The banality is unredeemed. Time to abolish the Turner Prize and inaugurate a Constable Prize for Painting, and perhaps a Henry Moore Prize for Sculpture.

    This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

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    LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS/REVIEW OF ANSELM KIEFER AT THE RA

    At the RA

    John-Paul Stonard

    Anselm Kiefer first came to public attention in London in A New Spirit in Painting, the exhibition held in 1981 at the Royal Academy. It’s fitting, then, that this should be the venue for the first full retrospective in Britain, curated by Kathleen Soriano (until 14 December). Kiefer has always divided critics, some taking fright at his heavy Germanic imagery, others describing the experience of his work in religious terms. It has lost none of its ability to provoke in either direction. Visitors circulate unusually slowly, silently contemplating the works. Looming at the top of the Academy stairs is a big sculpture,Language of the Birds (2013), a pile of large books made of lead sheets, interleaved with metal park chairs, surmounted by a giant pair of outspread wings, also of lead. Made from elements familiar from Kiefer’s work over the past forty years, the sculpture signals the epic journey that lies ahead.

    At the heart of Kiefer’s work is an idea and image of history. For the series of photographs entitled Occupations, which launched his career in 1969, he posed in different European locations dressed in military garb and performing a Nazi salute. The claim some have made that the photographs are evidence of fascist sympathies is bizarre – the satire is obvious. Although other German artists – Gerhard Richter and Markus Lüpertz, for example – had used military imagery, only Kiefer was reckless enough to portray himself as a Nazi. Kiefer was breaking a taboo about showing the recent past, but he was also saying something about the present – about the confrontation of generations that was then taking place in West Germany. Those who were too young to have taken an active part in the Third Reich (the ‘blessed’ generation in Helmut Kohl’s phrase), were confronted with a society still dominated by collaborators. The task was to hold a mirror up to West German society, to show what it had been, and to some extent what it still was.

    Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Heroische Sinnbilder’ (1969).

    Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Heroische Sinnbilder’ (1969).

    In paintings and books made over the next few years Kiefer seemed to plunge further down into German history, into the constellations of art and culture that had become so problematically entangled with fascism. His art is in this sense a form of unravelling.Man in the Forest, for example, a painting from 1971, is one of the first statements of his fascination with the theme of the forest and trees central to the Nazi myth. In a picture recalling Caspar David Friedrich’s The Chasseur in the Forest, Kiefer paints himself in a white gown, holding a burning branch in a thick forest, the oil layered and dripping as if the work was itself the outcome of a pagan rite.

    With Kiefer there is always a sense of meanings lurking just beneath the surface, of barely hidden taboos. Four paintings from 1973 on the theme of the Parsifal legend (three are included in this show) depict an attic space, in fact Kiefer’s studio at the time, the canvas dominated by the wood grain of the interior, done in charcoal on an oil ground. Inscribed on the canvas are the names of characters from Wagner’s opera and Gurnemanz’s line ‘Oh, wunden-wundervolles heiliger Speer!’ (‘Oh wounding, wondrous holy spear!’), which puts one in mind of Albert Speer. Also inscribed are the names of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang – Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin had finally been arrested shortly before Kiefer began the work. Half-buried in the wood grain effect (a Kiefer trademark), the combination of names suggests not only ‘difficult meaning’, but also the generational conflict which was to culminate in the events of the Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn) a few years later.

    Kiefer is one of the few living artists who can work convincingly on a truly monumental scale, creating vast works that seem not merely to take up, but to activate the space around them. This is particularly true of his paintings based on fascist architecture. The vast canvas Ash Flower (1983-97) is more than seven and a half metres long, and almost four in height, and shows a large ruin of what had been a classical interior in plunging single-point perspective, clay, ash and earth forming the desiccated surface. An enormous dried sunflower is attached, inverted, in the centre of the canvas. Peter Schjeldahl saw an ‘energetic contradiction of the frontal and the recessive’ in these works, which he compares to the paintings of Jackson Pollock. He refers to the sense of being caught between diving into the image, drawn into the perspectival vortex, or remaining on the surface of the canvas, seeing it as a physical object rather than an imaginary space. For perspectival recession read historical imagination, and for scarred surfaces read the historical present in which Kiefer was living and working, a Germany consumed with the task of reconstruction and, in its national life, the work of constant redefinition. According to Andreas Huyssen, this oscillation between past and present becomes a dilemma for the viewer, caught between the feeling of being ‘had’ and falling for the monumental aesthetic beguilingly presented as ‘art’. Hold onto the surface, remain in the present, if you can.

    The final painting in the architectural series, Sulamith (1983), is one of Kiefer’s best-known works, and possibly his greatest. It shows a low-ceilinged vaulted chamber, based on the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 memorial hall for German soldiers. The charred walls and glowering atmosphere of Kiefer’s version, and above all the inscribed ‘Sulamith’ show that far from being a Nazi Valhalla this is a Holocaust memorial. The ‘ashen-haired’ Sulamith and the ‘golden-haired’ Margarethe are from Paul Celan’s Todesfugue; the loss of Sulamith is a symbol of the Holocaust. Political reunification in 1990 restored the former east, but the real ‘other half’ of German history, the Jewish part, could never be restored.

    Kiefer’s range of subject matter and references is epic. Since the 1980s overtly Germanic themes – the forest, the Nibelungen, the Third Reich – have been joined by Mesopotamian history, Egyptian and Greek mythology, the Old Norse Edda and the Kabbalah. A summary of these interests is captured by The Rhine, an installation of monumental woodcuts displayed on free-standing screens: Goethe, Dürer, fascist architecture, the poetry of Celan, all hovering above an image of the longest German river. It is a testament to Kiefer’s tact that, despite the grandiosity of these themes, his work never feels overblown. At the heart of the Royal Academy display is an installation, Ages of the World, a title loosely translated from the German Erdzeitalter. A lofty, tapering stack of discarded canvases, stretched and rolled, interleaved with old photographs, rubble, lead books and more large dried sunflowers gives off a faint odour of the dust and solvent of an artist’s studio. Two works on the wall, large photographs of the sculpture overpainted with words, annotate the stack in terms of the strata of geological eras. At first it seems to be a monument to art’s failure in the face of history, or an attempt to escape history. The critic John Russell saw an earlier form of the work, titled Twenty Years of Solitude (1971-91) as a ‘portrait of the artist as Atlas, bearing upon his shoulders a whole world in epitome’. But despite this the mood remains somehow light, as though a burden has been shifted, a knot unravelled.

    This (relative) lightness of mood is one of the most striking qualities of Kiefer’s monumental works. These have taken the form of vast crumbling concrete towers, libraries of lead books – or the two enormous studio complexes he runs in France (descriptions of visits to these studios to interview the artist are a sub-genre of the Kiefer literature). The effect can be seen in the large canvas For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns, 1998-2009 (even the date range is epic) which shows a large brick structure, perhaps a tomb, barely visible beneath a surface of acrylic and shellac (who knows what else might be lurking in there), the whole thing encrusted in a thick layer of sand. The title refers to the two poets whom Kiefer holds in greatest reverence; when Celan embarked on an ill-fated affair with Bachmann, he inscribed his poem ‘In Egypt’ in his collection The Sand from the Urns for her: ‘Thou shalt say to the strange woman’s eye: be the water!’ The surface of the painting recalls Joyce – ‘These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here’ – but at the same time his citation from Celan counters the heaviness of the lead books, the pyramids, the halls of fame, with a dash of mysticism to suggest that there is something to be read in those leaden tomes after all. His schoolbook-like script (which strongly recalls the lettering Kitaj used on his paintings) adds to the sense of more simple histories and truths, and also reveals something of Kiefer’s sense of humour, which he has sustained since the absurdist satire of the Occupations photographs. An endearing crankiness helps his work to survive the grandiosity of its subject matter.

    As a retrospective the Royal Academy show is far from definitive. A weighting in favour of recent works, including two large diamond-encrusted lead-sheet ‘paintings’, and a room of seven new paintings, characterised by their rich gilded surfaces and grouped under the title Morgenthau, gives the impression of a mid-career show, organised in a commercial rather than a scholarly context (although the catalogue is highly informative and contains a fine essay by Christian Weikop on Kiefer’s use of tree and forest symbolism). It offers an opportunity to marvel, but not to get beneath the skin of Kiefer’s work, or to see him alongside other artists. His considerable debt to Joseph Beuys, at one time his teacher, is a case in point. The dried roses Beuys stuffed in a piano in 1969 are surely the origins of Kiefer’s sunflowers; and where Beuys used felt and fat as his signature materials, Kiefer uses lead (salvaged, we are told, from the roof of Cologne cathedral). The use of inscriptions, and the sense that an attempt is being made to create allegories of recent history also joins the two artists, although there are many differences too: Beuys was not a painter, for example; and Kiefer, since hisOccupations photographs, is not known for performances. And in many respects Kiefer has gone beyond his former teacher in creating a body of work that captures the experience and memories of a German artist working in the wake of the Third Reich. But it isn’t his subject matter, or even its poetic transformation, that makes Kiefer’s work so beguiling, particularly when compared with that of artists such as Beuys or Georg Baselitz. It is something far more prosaic: the fascination of running one’s eyes over the intricate surfaces of his paintings, admiring the sense of design in his woodcuts, his skill in painting in watercolour, or ingenuity in recycling materials for sculpture – the pleasure of wondering how it was all done.

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    Anselm Kiefer review – remembrance amid the ruins

    Royal Academy, London
    Anselm Kiefer’s monumental work in ash, straw, diamonds and sunflowers dazzles in a superb retrospective

    Anselm Kiefer retrospective - London
    ‘This is a show covered in clinker’: Ash Flower, 1983-97 by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy. Photograph: Justin Tallis/PA

    Anyone who knows even the smallest thing about Anselm Kiefer will have gathered that his ambitions are not ordinary. An old-school history painter, didactic and inescapably moral, he works on a grand scale in lead, sand, gold leaf, copper wire, broken ceramics, straw, wood and even diamonds, his ideas informed by, among many other subjects, the Holocaust, Egyptian mythology, the architecture of Albert Speer, German Romanticism and the poems of Paul Celan. He is the kind of artist whose physical presence – in his black T-shirts and rimless spectacles, he puts one in mind just lately of an executive from Apple – always comes as a surprise. How, you wonder, can a man who deals with so much weighty stuff have such regular-looking shoulders, such ordinary biceps? And why is he smiling? Doesn’t the darkness ever threaten to engulf him? Doesn’t his project – now more than 40 years old – sometimes pinch at his sanity?

    Ice and Blood (Eis und Blut), 1971 by Anselm Kiefer.

    Ice and Blood (Eis und Blut), 1971 by Anselm Kiefer. Private collection © Anselm Kiefer Photograph: Bénédicte Peyrat/Private collection © Anselm Kiefer

    Yet only with the help of a blindfold would you be able to wander the Royal Academy’s stupendous retrospective of his work and leave feeling anything less than drunk with amazement. However much you know about Kiefer, it’s impossible to be prepared for this show: for its scale, its pleasures, its provocations and – this must be said – its bafflements. This is a total experience. The work first speaks to the eyes, which instinctively scour every last corner of every painting, every sculpture. Then it calls to the heart, pulling from you all sorts of things Kiefer certainly didn’t intend (in my case: modern-day Syria; the 80s nuclear TV drama Threads; John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids). Last of all, it engages the head, as you attempt to unravel his complex, multilayered narratives. It’s certainly useful to know your history before you enter these spaces – and if you’re fluent in the language of Richard Wagner and Caspar David Friedrich, so much the better. But it isn’t necessary. In any case, mystification is half the point. No artist puts this much effort into the construction of their work without wanting their audience to linger over it, to try and fathom it out.

    Ages of the World (Die Erdzeitalter), 2014 by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy.
    Ages of the World (Die Erdzeitalter), 2014 by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy. Photograph: REX/REX

    Kiefer was born in the Black Forest in 1945, a kind of year zero in terms of German history. And it’s this – the attempt to wipe out collective memory after the war – that has long been his creative wellspring (at school his teachers hardly mentioned the Third Reich). Taught by Joseph Beuys, the artist who helped Kiefer’s generation to reclaim much of the historical and mythological imagery rendered so toxic by the Nazis, his early work depicts himself, dressed in his father’s army uniform, taking the Nazi salute outside the Colosseum in Rome and elsewhere. The Royal Academy show, which works chronologically, begins with this zesty, youthful reappropriation. I was queasily hypnotised by the watercolour Ice and Blood (1971), in which an expanse of snow is scarred with pools of crimson and, far worse, a tiny, naive figure in a military overcoat, its right arm ominously raised. Before you get there, though, the Royal Academy reveals its breathtaking commitment to Kiefer with a little reappropriation of its own. The garish shop at the top of the gallery’s stairs has disappeared. In its stead is Language of the Birds (2013), a monumental sculpture comprising a pile of charred-looking books with a huge set of wings attached. Do these belong to a German eagle? Naturally, that’s what comes to mind. But I kept thinking, too, of the phoenix, a creature that speaks to Anselm’s preoccupation with myth, rebirth and the cycles of time every bit as loudly as the Reichsadler.

    The phoenix rises from the ashes, and this, after all, is a show that is covered in clinker. Ash Flower (1983-97), made of oil, acrylic, paint, clay, earth, ash and – a recurring symbol in Kiefer’s work – a dried sunflower, is a seven metre-wide depiction of a ruin, the ruthless lines of a grand public building emerging through its murky surface like the prow of a ship through fog. Sulamith (1983), inspired by a Paul Celan poem, Death Fugue, which was written in a concentration camp (“your ashen hair Shulamite”), is a gloomy crypt rendered in oil, acrylic, woodcut, emulsion and straw, at one end of which a fire endlessly flickers. Untitled (2006-08) consists of a triptych of huge vitrines in which there resides a wintry graveyard of brambles, dead roses, more ash, and toppling concrete houses. Gradually, the work starts to talk to the future as well as the past. In the Royal Academy’s octagonal gallery is a new piece, Ages of the World (2014): a pile of abandoned canvases and rubble bedecked with an unhappy coronet of yet more dead sunflowers. It has a dystopian, post-apocalyptic feel: no culture, no hope.

    Morgenthau Plan, 2013.

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    Morgenthau Plan, 2013. Photograph: Charles Duprat/© Anselm Kiefer

    All this is pitch-dark. But there is radiance elsewhere – and colour too. For Ingeborg Bachmann: the Sand from the Urns (1998-2009) is a depiction of a ziggurat in a sandstorm so astonishingly dynamic you’re almost tempted to squint, the better to protect your eyes, while the satirical Operation Sea Lion(1975) has toy battleships floating in one of the zinc baths that were given to every German home by the health-obsessed Third Reich, its water a horribly chipper shade of blue. Best of all there are Kiefer’s Morgenthau paintings from 2013, named for the US Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jnr – whose plan it was in 1944 to transform Germany into a pre-industrial nation as a means of limiting her ability to fight future wars – and crammed with impasto stalks of corn that sometimes blow and bend, and sometimes reach for the blazing sky. A note on the wall urges the visitor to note the crows circling above, a symbol of death and resurrection. But it isn’t these flapping shadows that keep you in the room; it’s the whispering grass, the beatific sunshine, the splashes of cornflower blue. Kiefer is that most resolute of artists. He has never turned away from the difficult and the sombre; his career is a magnificent reproach to those who think art can’t deal with the big subjects, with history, memory and genocide. In the end, though, what stays with you is the feeling – overwhelming at times – that he is always making his way carefully towards the light.

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    FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

    September 19, 2014 6:38 pm

    Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy show

    Politics, history, money – and alchemy. The provocative artist gives our visual arts critic a tour of his studio
    Anselm Kiefer in front of his work ‘Ages of the World’ (2014)©Howard Sooley

    Anselm Kiefer in front of his work ‘Ages of the World’ (2014)

    When I tell Anselm Kiefer that my favourite work in his forthcoming Royal Academy retrospective is “Tándaradei” – a monumental new painting in oil, emulsion and shellac where pink, red and mauve blossoms seem to burst into life, fade, wilt, all at once – the artist looks apologetic. “I put it out of the exhibition because it’s too beautiful. It’s too much. I couldn’t allow it.”

    Painters have been quarrelling about beauty for centuries but Kiefer, born in southern Germany in the last months of the second world war, has rooted his life’s work in the urgent postwar anxiety about art’s role and future: Theodor Adorno’s claim that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.

    “You cannot avoid beauty in a work of art,” says Kiefer. He waves at a room full of richly textured works with scorched, barbed surfaces – built up from ash, lead, shards of pottery, battered books and broken machines – that evoke war-ravaged wastelands but have lyricism etched into the violence of their making. “You can take the most terrible subject and automatically it becomes beautiful. What is sure is that I could never do art about Auschwitz. It is impossible because the subject is too big.”

    This is a conversation stopper because Kiefer has rarely made art about anything else. In the 1960s he made his debut as a performance artist: dressed in his father’s army uniform, he photographed himself making the Nazi salute in iconic European locations such as Rome’s Colosseum, confronting what his fellow artist Joseph Beuys called Germany’s “visual amnesia” about the Holocaust. Half a century later, at this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, he displayed a new painting “Kranke Kunst” (“Sick Art”), a lovely willowy reprise of a 1974 watercolour of the same name in which a landscape of the kind idealised by the Nazis was dotted with pink boils.

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    Kiefer explains: “I like the double sense, first ‘Kranke Kunst’ is negative, it comes from Nazi censorship of entartete Kunst [degenerate art]. And then, it’s completely true because all is ill, the situation in the world is ill . . . Syria, Nigeria, Russia. Our head is generally ill, we are constructed wrong.”

    What can art do?

    “Art cannot help directly. Art is the way to make it obvious. Art is cynical, it shows the negativity of the world, it’s the first condemnation.”

    Can art be celebratory?

    “Matisse, he celebrates, but I see through this – to desperation.”

    Kiefer says all this to me cheerfully, deadpan, over vodka at three in the afternoon in his 30,000 sq metre Paris atelier, a former warehouse of the department store Samaritaine. Another studio in Barjac, southern France, occupies a 200-acre estate but even the Paris one is so extensive that you need a car to cross it, past rusting tanks, containers with paintings left out to the chance elements of weather, and rose bushes planted by the artist. At one point we nearly collide with a crane hoisting a slab of lead. “For me, huge doesn’t exist,” Kiefer admits.

    . . .

    Tall and greying but lean and swift in white shorts and open shirt, the 69-year-old has fled preparations for the show in London – “It’s boring for an artist to do a retrospective” – but he offers a tour of the work here. Sculptures wrought from damaged bomber planes are strewn across one studio. Styrofoam towers from his nine-storey set for the Bastille Opera’s In the Beginning tumble and crumble in another. Hundreds of bleached-out resin sunflowers at three times life size, a comic homage to Van Gogh, stand guard at the gated entrance.

    You cannot avoid beauty in a work of art

    Sunflowers like these are coming to London, part of an installation, entitled “Ages of the World”, of unfinished canvases stacked horizontally into giant rubbish heaps that will occupy the RA’s opening central hall. I had interpreted an allusion to German history, the unhealable rupture imposed by the Nazi attack on degenerate art. Kiefer, however, points to monochrome gouaches that will surround his fallen canvases, which are scrawled with words referencing stratigraphy, palaeography, geology.

    Archaikum, mesozoikum,” he recites, drawing out the syllables like a line of poetry. He speaks English well but relaxes into real pleasure of expression when lapsing into German. “I like these words! How many million years are we old? You don’t know? You don’t know our age! I have all this catastrophe in my biography. That is what you see in ‘Ages of the World’. We go back much before our birthday. In our mind is inserted all this stratigraphy. Three hundred and fifty million years ago a meteorite touched the earth and 95 per cent of life was extinguished. Three hundred and fifty million years ago the dinosaurs – and lots of people – died. German history? It starts with Archaikum.”

    In one of the most affecting paintings in the exhibition, “The Orders of the Night” (1996), there are also giant sunflowers, blackened, lined up in rows, menacing as soldiers, looming over a self-portrait of Kiefer as a corpse. And dried sunflowers mix with ash, clay and oil in the sombre, tapering interior, “The Ash Flower” (1983-87), the show’s largest painting at nearly 26ft wide.

    At the Royal Academy, such ghostly interiors, echoing with references to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, such as the chancellery in “To the Unknown Painter” (1983), will hang alongside desolate versions of the forests and fields of the German romantic imagination: landscape destroyed in “Painting of the Scorched Earth” (1974); deathly in the shimmering straw of “Margarethe” (1981), representing the blond camp guard; paired with the dark straw ashes of the victim of the furnaces “Sulamith” (1983); or inscribed with the poems of Paul Celan and studded with charred books in the more recent furrowed “Black Flakes” (2006).

    When I got an early glimpse of the show, these struck me as the dark heart of Kiefer’s achievement I ask him if he feels that these were the works he inevitably had to make. “No, no. Perhaps I should have been a poet or a writer. You can never be sure because you make mistakes but the mistake becomes reality.” Poems, he says, “are like buoys in the sea. I swim from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.” He says Celan, a Holocaust survivor, “is the most important poet since the war. He puts words together as no one did before. He made another language, he’s an alchemist concerning words.”

    Is alchemy a metaphor for what Kiefer does? “It is what I do,” he corrects. “Alchemy is not to make gold, the real alchemist is not interested in material things but in transubstantiation, in transforming the spirit. It’s a spiritual thing more than a material thing. An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context. My bird is about that . . . ” He points out “The Language of Birds”, a new avian sculpture whose body is composed of burnt books, also to be completed for the London show. “It’s made with lead and strips of silver, gold. Its wings are lead and can’t fly, the books can’t fly, the metal is solid, but it changes.” He loves lead because “it has always been a material for ideas. It is in flux, it’s changeable and has the potential to achieve a higher state.” He grins: “And then, my paintings have a certain value, so I’m an alchemist.”

    Art cannot help directly. Art is the way to make it obvious. Art is cynical, it shows the negativity of the world, it’s the first condemnation

    Kiefer’s auction record is $3.6m, achieved for “To the Unknown Painter” in 2011, and he is represented by blue-chip dealers Gagosian, White Cube and Thaddaeus Ropac; indeed, in 2012, both Gagosian and Ropac launched massive galleries in Paris with rival Kiefer shows, flaming criticism of overproduction and repetition. “Kiefer has become better and better at making Anselm Kiefers. In them grandiosity rarely takes a holiday,” wrote Roberta Smith in The New York Times of a 2010 Gagosian Manhattan show. In that exhibition, Next Year in Jerusalem, Kiefer’s references to Jewish mysticism and history, a strand in his work since the 1980s, attracted protesters against Israel’s blockade of Gaza; wearing T-shirts inscribed with the show’s title, they asked to stay in the gallery to continue discussions raised by Kiefer’s work. The gallery called the police, saying, “This is private property. We’re here to sell art.”

    Was this a betrayal of Kiefer’s seriousness, an admission that 21st-century art is primarily a commodity? I can think of no other contemporary figure who operates at the interface of art, money, politics and history as prominently, and with such confident equilibrium, as Kiefer. It is undeniable, and borne out by unpredictable auction results, that the quality of his prolific output is uneven, sometimes top-heavy with portentous theme or occult narrative. On the other hand, the cohesion of ideas and tone in the RA show, Kiefer’s first retrospective, dramatises how the conceptual impetus underpinning his material endeavours mean that all his works belong together as a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk – or even as a performance piece in progress, which began with his solitary Sieg Heil in Rome half a century ago.

    At his Wagnerian stretch, Kiefer is a very German artist, though he left the country in 1990, after reunification. He says: “Since I live in France it seems that I am more German. Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks in Rome: when he was in Italy he became aware of being German. It’s clear that I am in the tradition of German art, Holbein, Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich, but national character is no longer so present. The last time there was real distinction between French and German art was impressionism, which was French, and expressionism, which was German – then it was clear who was who. Now it’s not global but it’s European – if I take America as part of Europe, though they will not like that! In America and the UK it’s about the work. In Germany it’s always linked to some moral issue.”

    It seems to me that there are two things that make the Royal Academy show significant beyond an account of one man’s vision. This autumn Kiefer is being shown alongside two German near-contemporaries, Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern and Gerhard Richter at Marian Goodman’s new Mayfair space. Each came of age in a morally fatherless culture and had to negotiate positions vis-à-vis German history: Polke’s was fundamentally absurdist, Richter’s ironic, and Kiefer’s is broadly tragic. All are valid responses to Adorno.

    But an RA show is also an institution boasting a centuries-old history of debate about the formal nature of painting. Kiefer follows exhibitions devoted to Anish Kapoor, who in 2009 drove a “paint train” through the galleries and shot pigment at the walls from a gun; and to David Hockney, who in 2012 challenged traditional painting with iPad sketches enlarged to enormous scale and film. Both artists proved that painting could rival younger media as spectacle, theatre, performance; this show will do the same.

    Before I leave Paris, Kiefer shows me a group of green-gold paintings, encrusted with metal, polystyrene, shellac, sheaves of wheat, paint layered over photographs, a shoe, a pair of scales. This is the Morgenthau series, begun in 2012 and named after a leaked, abandoned wartime American plan to deindustrialise Germany. “A big present to Hitler,” says Kiefer, “because he was able to say, ‘If you don’t fight, this will happen to you. Fifty million Germans would have died – though that’s nothing [compared] to Mao.”

    I could never do art about Auschwitz. It is impossible because the subject is too big

    Kiefer has made some new Morgenthau paintings especially for Burlington House. Altogether there are a lot of them: an obvious glitzy currency for a widening collector base. They are also rather beautiful.

    “I came to the title,” Kiefer explains, “because I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’, in a cynical way telling that Germany would be so beautiful without industry. This way of turning it round, it tells you the ambiguity of beauty.”

    A smart conceptualist’s marketing strategy or an artist making peace with the tradition of painting? Kiefer pauses to marvel at an emerald hue while fingering the gold leaf, which he has layered on to sediment of electrolysis, an industrial galvanisation process to which he submits the works – a modern alchemy. “You cannot produce it, it’s such a powerful green, that’s the electrolysis, it changes the painting and when I see it, I am surprised. And that’s what I live for: to be surprised.”

    ‘Anselm Kiefer’ is at the Royal Academy, London, September 27 to December 14, royalacademy.org.uk

    Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic. Read her review of Constable at the V&A

    Photograph: Howard Sooley

     

    ==

    Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy, preview: Is he our greatest living artist?

    Kiefer’s range seems limitless: the courtyard entrance to the Royal Academy will be dominated by his first ever vitrines for outdoor display, one containing ships, as it were, beached, the other with vessels afloat

    The sunflowers are over for another year: the confident golden heads have drooped, their sunny countenances giving way to a black scowl.

    It feels like a metaphor for the end of summer. But for the artist Anselm Kiefer, this is when sunflowers get interesting. Like his hero Van Gogh, he revisits the sunflower time and again, not for its buttery radiance, but for its blackened seeds. Sunflowers, in Kiefer’s work, are embedded into paintings, apparently dead, but bearing the potential for life.

    The polarities of life and death, the heavens and the earth, micro and macro, are central to the work of the 69-year-old German painter and sculptor, described by the curator of a major retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy in London, opening this month, as “our greatest living artist”. Kathleen Soriano has worked closely with Kiefer, an honorary Academician elected by his peers, and while she has been selecting work from a career lasting almost 50 years, he has been making new pieces – 40 per cent of the work will not have been seen before, and much of it has been created with the architecture of the RA’s home in Burlington House in mind.

    “One of the things that Anselm wanted to do was to respect the architecture,” explains Soriano. This is not simply an aesthetic response to a well-proportioned building, but a physical interaction with the bricks and mortar that can be both mankind’s triumph and its disgrace.

    Kiefer, a child of the Second World War, was born into another polarity: on the one hand the grandiose, fascist buildings of architects such as Albert Speer, on the other, the rubble of bombed houses. On the day Kiefer was born, the neighbouring shop/house was destroyed, only a sewing machine propelled unbroken into the street, its isolation and solidity later echoing in works such as Black Flakes (2006), at first glance a desolate winter landscape, in which a book made of lead is embedded in the thawing snow.

    Growing up with the heavy burden of his country’s wartime atrocities, Kiefer scandalised some when, early in his career, he produced images that were not only unacceptable but actually outlawed in Germany – depicting him, in a Nazi uniform, giving the Nazi salute. Due to feature in the first room of the exhibition, they force us to confront the past and raise the question of the role of the artist in the wake of a vicious regime. Though at the same time, Soriano says, “the work is as much about the present and the future … and the way he plumbs the past is always forewarning us about the evils of mankind.”

    Kiefer wants to restore some of his country’s corrupted legacy, too. “The Nazis had tarnished so much mythology, and he wanted to reclaim it,” says Soriano. Much of that mythology lies in the woods and forests of Germany, which not only inspire the subjects of Kiefer’s work, but provide the materials. Going far beyond traditional oils and sculptural metals, Kiefer’s media for one work, based on the story of Isis reassembling her dismembered lover Osiris, reads: “Lead, concrete, roses, bramble, acrylic, emulsion, ash shellac …” Nothing is invalid as a material.

    ‘The Renowned Orders of the Night’, from the Seattle Art Museum
    But even with the whole world as his supplier, Kiefer does not rest there. Another of the polarities that fascinates him is order and chaos. A completed work may, to him, appear too organised, and so he relinquishes it to nature – leaving it outdoors, allowing it to disintegrate. Curators and conservators have been known to retrieve flakes of paintings from the gallery floor, returning them to the artist, who incorporates them in other work. Sometimes he sets fire to his pieces; he has also shot at them. The ambiguity of fire intrigues him: it is cleansing and cauterising, but also disfiguring and destructive.

    In contrast to the natural cathedrals of the forest canopy, Kiefer also paints vast, cavernous halls, but again he is drawn to extremes: on the one hand he admires their grand architecture; on the other, he is drawn to their simple building blocks. “He loves the idea of man making bricks as God makes stars,” says Soriano.

    Kiefer’s range seems limitless: the courtyard entrance to the Royal Academy will be dominated by his first ever vitrines for outdoor display, one containing ships, as it were, beached, the other with vessels afloat. He is intrigued by the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov’s theory that history throws up a critical naval battle every 317 years. Even water, plain and simple, is ambiguous. When the Rhine, which forms a geographical border between Germany and France, flooded the basement of his childhood home, Kiefer wondered where the boundary lay then – in the midst of the swollen waters or in his cellar?

    Landscape is important to him, and not only the golden lakes of sunflowers. The American Morgenthau Plan, devised in 1944 to strip a near-defeated Germany of its industry and turn it into a farm for Europe, is thought to have only strengthened the Nazis’ resolve, and cost more lives. Kiefer harvests the landscape in his own way, embedding straw in his portrayals of Margarete, a blond Aryan who appears in a series of paintings inspired by Paul Celan’s elegy to victims of the Holocaust, Death Fugue, alongside another figure from the poem, black-haired Jewish woman Shulamite.

    Since 1968 Kiefer has been making books, the pages of which do not necessarily reveal obvious text and images: 48 will be on show at the RA, and the exhibition will conclude with a walk through the panels of a larger-than-life, concertina-like volume, called a leporello (after Don Giovanni’s servant, whose list of his master’s lovers that is so long he must fold it).

    “People think of Kiefer’s work being so masculine and confrontational,” says Soriano, “and I don’t think they understand his gentle side. What I want people to take away from this show is not only the knowledge that he is a great painter, but also that he has great relevance.” Indeed Kiefer, she adds, is looking, like all of us, with great anxiety at today’s turbulent world. “He says you have to remember that history is cyclical.”

    ===

    THE PROJECT/A SOCIALIST JOURNAL

    Review:  Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

    REVIEW: ANSELM KIEFER AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY

    A visit to the Anselm Kiefer retrospective exhibition at the RA can be a daunting prospect for many reasons, the scale of the work, the complexity of themes and the sheer overwhelming volume of diverse media on display in this huge exhibition.

    Kiefer has many interests among which German history, mythology, alchemy, poetry, ritual, metaphysics, cosmology, are explored and transformed into a special, unique vision of our world.

    Kiefer was born in Germany on 8 March 1945 just before the end of the Second World War, so growing up in post-war Germany has been a major conditioning factor in his development and a defining influence in his practice.

    As a young artist he found that there was a reluctance to acknowledge and confront the recent Nazi past and the damaging distortion that had been inflicted on German culture.

    Reacting to this he made provocative photographs and paintings of himself wearing his father’s coat (he had been a Nazi party member) giving an illegal salute.

    But in these images, the pose looks weak and limp and pathetic. In one painting there are references to Classical sculptures, favoured by the Third Reich, hovering in ghostly form in the sky above the saluting figure seen standing beside the Rhine. This painting, despite the unsettling subject matter is full of beautiful passages showing Kiefer’s command and expressive use of oil paint.

    He is also a skillful and fluent watercolour painter exploiting the potential of the medium to great effect as seen in Winter Landscape 1970, where the delicacy of the paint starkly contrasts with the violence of the image. Any idea about watercolour being a soft medium used for pleasing subjects, easy on the eye and brain, will be rapidly dispelled here. It is this quality of employing seduction with repulsion that forms a consistent element flowing like the Rhine through the show.

    A major characteristic of Kiefer’s work is the use of elemental materials that includes ash, clay, straw, wood, blood, lead, sunflowers, copper and recently, gold and diamonds.

    The physical manipulation of materials has given him opportunities to explore his themes and concerns resulting in awe-inspiring work, gigantic in scale and ambition.

    As his practice has developed over the years, the surface of the 2D work becomes increasingly 3D to the point where it seems as if a vertical canvas cannot support the weight of the material.

    Because many of the materials employed are by nature fragile, paint and other additives trowelled on in heavy impasto, the monumentality of the work increases a sense of its precariousness and possible disintegration.

    Kiefer apparently, is not worried by this possibility!

    One of the preoccupations that recurs in the paintings is the forest. Being aware of recent history, these paintings can have different readings dependent on whether they are viewed as places of refuge or murder.

    Kiefer’s understanding of the way in which paint behaves is seen here, dripping, contrasting thin with thick textures, implying spatial depth and volume. There is always an underlying sense of perspective in the composition of the visual elements giving, however obscured, structure to the painting.

    The use of single point perspective is especially strong in the converging parallels employed in the huge paintings of the bombastic Nazi Neo-Classical architecture, destroyed in the war, but reimagined by Kiefer as charred ruins.

    Railway lines and tracks in the landscape take us nervously towards an ominous vanishing point.

    With his high status in the art world justifiably recognized he now has the power and means to do anything he dreams of, demonstrated by the increased use of very expensive materials and huge installations. I was left with the feeling that because he “can do” he “will do”.

    Is there the possible risk that the priceless value of the materials will overwhelm us and act as a barrier in our ability to reach further into the meaning of the work?

     

    The exhibition continues until 14 December.

    Image:

    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

    ==

    THE TELEGRAPH LONDON

    The New Los Angeles (2011;2012; 2013; 2014)

    The Cedd Moses award winning bar, The Varnish, at the back of Coles, a restored century old formerly run down restaurant. We enjoyed a great hot pastrami sandwich at Coles just after it opened. The Varnish was recently named best bar in America.

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    The Best Restaurant Bar Programs in L.A.

    Despite what the New York Times says, there are plenty of great restaurant bars

    October 10, 2014 Cocktails, Drinking Add a comment

    Restaurant critic Pete Wells was kinda tough on New York restaurant’s bar programs in his New York Times column this week, saying that “an awful lot of the cocktails I’ve had in restaurants have landed with a splat in the ‘not good’ category.” So to convince Wells otherwise, Grubstreet came up with a list of New York restaurant cocktails “that don’t suck.” Surprisingly there were only 13 drinks.

    Thirteen? L.A. could pass that in its sleep. In Los Angeles, many restaurants are taking their cocktail programs seriously. They’re hiring cocktail consultants or beverage directors, usually well-respected mixologists and bartenders, to build the bar program by handpicking the spirits, training the staff, and creating a drink menu to complement the food and the theme. Nowadays, a phoned-in cocktail menu of “classics with a twist” ain’t gonna cut it.

    For this list, instead of calling out one cocktail from each restaurant, I decided to give a shoutout to restaurant bars that actually have drinks you finish involuntarily.

    By the way, originally this list was up to 22 but had to whittle it down. Are there any restaurants that you think should have made the cut?

    Rivera/Bestia/Acabar/Petty CashJulian Cox has the magic touch when it comes to bar programs. Trained by Sam Ross at Comme Ca, Julian’s drinks appeal to both teetotaller and pro drinkers. Unlike most restaurant cocktails which are light for fear of interfering with the food, his drinks are still flavorful and will leave liquor lovers sated. His bartenders are required to go through six weeks of training to earn a spot at one of his bars. Basically, when you see the Cox name on the menu, you know you’re good to go.

    A.O.C.: Christiaan Rollich is also the man behind the bar programs at Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s other successful restaurants—Lucques and Tavern—but it was his creations at A.O.C. that helped put it at the top of L.A. Magazine’s 75 Best Restaurants list, at least for me. There he makes his own…well, everything, from coffee liqueurs to pepita syrups to even bathtub gin.

    Brilliantshine: If Julian Cox can create such amazingness for other bar programs, you can imagine what he’s doing with his own restaurant, which he owns with his Soigne Group partner Josh Goldman. It’s like the best of Julian all up in there with cocktails inspired by his world travels. Best part, you can enjoy his drinks during a boozy brunch, late night or before and after dinner with food by Chef Richie Lopez. (During the meal, partake of Goldman’s wine list.)

    The Corner Door: While this Culver City restaurant played musical chefs, head bartender Beau du Bois has been a stalwart fixture since the beginning, making it a go-to spot for cocktail enthusiasts who followed him from his days at M.B. Post. Plus, who can stay away from those fun cocktails with unusual flavor combinations like pineapple and cinnamon-infused Campari.

    Crossroads: The fact that barman Jeremy Lake can create tasty vegan cocktails is a testament to his skills. Have you checked out his vegan hot buttered rum? Trained by Julian Cox, Lake consistently puts out imaginative drinks to complement chef Tal Ronnen’s animal-friendly cuisine.

    The Eveleigh: Bar manager Dave Kupchinsky has singlehandedly turned the Sunset Strip, an area usually favored by tourists and the beautiful people, into a destination for craft cocktail enthusiasts. Every Monday features a different guest bartender, every Sunday a farmers-market fresh cocktail, and of course there’s D-Kup’s seasonally updated menu.

    Gracias Madre: Another vegan restaurant with an impressive bar program. What are the chances? Only in L.A. At this West Hollywood vegan Mexican restaurant, beverage director Jason Eisner complements the fun fare by the Cafe Gratitude crew with build-your-own picklebacks, 24k gold-flecked cocktails, and boozy popsicles.

    Ink: If you can’t get a reservation at Chef Michael Voltaggio’s hot West Hollywood adjacent restaurant, a seat at the bar with head bartender Gabriella Mlynarcyzk is in no way a consolation prize. She will wow you with her unique cocktails which make use of inventive ingredients like housemade IPA foam, chartreuse pixie dust, and chamomile vermouth. Or for something more familiar, check out her list of classic cocktails where a Negroni is made with rapid barrel-aged gin and the Dirty Martini has sake, umeboshe plums, vinegar, and celery bitters.

    Petit Trois: It’s exciting stuff to be able to have cocktails with chef Ludo Lefebvre’s French bistro fare. For a long while diners could only enjoy BYOB wine with the pop-up king’s cuisine. But now for his second brick-and-mortar restaurant which features a full bar, bartender Danielle Motor (Hungry Cat) created food-friendly and Ludo-approved drinks.

    Republique: I’m usually torn between barman Erik Lund’s cocktails and sommelier Taylor Parson’s wine list here but in the end it’s a cocktail for starters and wine for the meal. Lund’s short cocktail list–categorized by aperitif, traditional, and market–changes often, keeping up with chef Walter Manzke’s menu. So if you see something on there you like now better order it before it’s gone.

    Scopa Italian Roots: What happens when two skilled barmen and a chef go into the restaurant business together? You get this Venice-adjacent eatery where everything you consume makes you happy. Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix (also co-owners of Santa Monica’s new Chestnut Club) created not only a stellar cocktail menu with instant favorites like Bullock’s Wilshire as well as one of the best Palomas I’ve ever had but a rich person’s drink list expertly using high-end stuff.

    Tasting Kitchen: Barman Justin Pike has shaped the program of Chef Casey Lane’s Venice hotspot eatery since it opened in 2009. His drinks are simple, approachable and excellently crafted. Sure he’ll employ cocktail trends but because they make sense for his bar, and not because they’re crowd pleasers. Back when shrubs started to hit the scene, Pike made his own since he wasn’t a fan of the farm-to-glass trend. Shrubs were a good way to add the fruit component.

    – See more at: http://www.lamag.com/liquidlablog/best-restaurant-bar-programs-l/#sthash.ZDikKfaj.dpuf

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    Crossroads Bartender Jeremy Lake Opens New Hollywood Bar Lost Property

    Claim rare whiskies and found items at this lost-and-found themed bar

    November 12, 2014 Cocktails, Drinking Add a comment

    Bartender Jeremy Lake is living the dream. Over a year after taking on his first solo project creating the cocktail program at Chef Tal Ronen’s Crossroads, he teamed up with Ryan Floyd and Walter Schild of the David Myers Group (Hinoki & the Bird, Comme Ca) and partners Rhino Williams and Matthew Jacobs to open up Lost Property in Hollywood.

    This brand-new whiskey bar is next door to 33 Taps on the historic Hollywood and Vine intersection. “I feel so blessed. I get emotional about it. It’s amazing,” Lake gushed. “I’m opening my own place and it’s on Hollywood and Vine.” The intimate bar takes over 33 Taps’ little-used event space which can hold 60 people comfortably. Its decor is timeless with blue couches, clean midcentury style tables and a crystal whiskey decanter chandelier. “You can come in here in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘80s, ‘90s, today and it will all look exactly the same,” said Lake.

    And even though sports attire and flip flops may reign supreme at the adjacent two-level sports bar, Lost Property will have a “just look nice” dress code and a doorman to enforce it. There won’t be a password, though.

    Now, the concept of a whiskey bar isn’t new. But a “lost and found” claim check system where you can “claim” (read: spend massive amounts of money on) lost and rare bottles of whiskey is. “We’ll advertise that we have a very rare Macallan coming in and you can buy the bottle if you want to and we’ll keep it in a bag with a ‘lost and found’ tag with your name on it,” explained Lake. “Whenever you come in, you pay a little corkage and you and your friends can sip on your bottle. It’s reserved for you.” The idea is that customers will have fun getting a sense of ownership, knowing that their bottle is waiting there for them.

    For the opening, the whiskey list will start out with 50 different brands ranging from a $6 Evan Williams to a $40 rare rye from Northern California, which they only have one bottle of. However, it won’t get super nerdy here with tasting notes laid out in the menu. “A whiskey geek can come in here and I’ll make them a great cocktail and we’ll talk all day long about whiskey. Or a guy who doesn’t know anything about whiskey can come in and have a great time, too,” said Lake.

    Cocktails off the standard list will be priced from $9 to $15 while Lake’s more decadent “Why Not?” menu, which spotlights cocktails made with his more high-end spirits, will range from $20 to $100. Another fun aspect of the Lost Property theme takes drunk shopping to another level. “Unclaimed” scarves, hats, sweaters, etc. will decorate the walls and if you see something that should be yours you can claim it.

    Or you can turn it into a fun way to buy a drink for a friend who isn’t there. Pick a knickknack and buy a drink for your absentee buddy. The bar will affix a “lost and found” tag to the item and write down the drink. Then your friend can simply come in with their claim check stub to pick up their drink and found item. Don’t worry about missing out. The bar plans to replenish the fake lost items on a regular basis through estate sales and places like Jet Rag.

    Lost Property’s grand opening is tomorrow starting at 7 p.m. Hours will be Thursday through Saturday from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

    redarrow Lost Property, 1704 N. Vine St., Hollywood, 323-987-4445

    – See more at: http://www.lamag.com/liquidlablog/jeremy-lake-lost-property-bar/#sthash.B3JSdvKi.dpuf

    A First Look at Butchers & Barbers’ Cocktail Program

    Plus, how to pair the cocktails with chef Reyes’ comfort food

    October 29, 2014 Cocktails, Drinking Add a comment

    Leave it to Jonnie and Mark Houston (Houston Hospitality) to constantly up the bar and nightlife scene with every new venue they open. I mean, wow, Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. Next Tuesday, however, the brothers aren’t adding yet another drink spot to their growing repertoire of themed delights but rather an old bowery-style New American restaurant called Butchers & Barbers. Complete with meat hooks and barbicide jars. Tucked between Houston properties No Vacancy and Dirty Laundry in Hollywood, the 1,200-square-foot, 50-seat restaurant will feature New American cuisine by Chef Luke Reyes (The Corner Door).

    So why a restaurant now? Besides courting the challenge of the food biz, Mark said it felt like a natural next step for them. “As I get older I desire an environment where I can sit down and have a conversation,” he said. “I think the next thing is breaking bread with friends, having dinner, and genuinely get to know each other.”

    The food menu accommodates every kind of appetite. For snacking at the bar, there’s popcorn seasoned with roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme oil. For something absolutely indulgent and hearty there’s the 34-ounce côte de boeuf. And even though these are shared plates, they’re the hefty family-style portions. “You have to be very cautious about ordering too much,” said Mark. “You want to make sure you order and don’t overstuff yourself because you might not be open to going out after.”

    To go with the dishes, Houston Hospitality Beverage Director Joseph Swifka didn’t just complement the masculine feel of the restaurant with the use of heavy, brown spirits but designed a drink menu of eight food-friendly cocktails. With house-made infusions and syrups as well as fresh produce, the drinks don’t overshadow the food yet still manage to have interesting, sophisticated flavors. “I wanted to have a couple of drinks with sherry involved just because sherry pairs nicely with food in general,” said Swifka. “There’s also on the lighter end of things, nice acidity to balance some of the flavors and to cut through richer dishes that we have.”

    If you’re looking to do your own cocktail pairing with dinner, he recommends starting with the Lillian Gish (name may change) or the Good Ol Laurel, a take on a gin and tonic. Both have “a nice brightness and acidity to get your palate moving.” While the mellowness of the Ava Gardner, thanks to the toasted hazelnut and honey, makes it a fitting sipper during the meal. And to finish up, go for the Battle Potomkin which “could stand in the place of a very strong cup of tea or coffee.”

    Groups of friends can order up a barrel of cocktail, which won’t be used to age but rather as a serving vessel for four people or so. “They’ll go out to the table and they’ll be able to use the spigots to pour their own drinks.”

    In terms of the beer situation here, there are six beers on tap and only one bottle and one can as that space behind the bar is very tight. The selection, although limited, hits all the major notes, from a light white ale to IPA to richer, darker beers by producers like Angel City, Ballast Point, and Saint Archer. As for wine, the list is primarily made up of Rosenthal wines. “They’re mostly French right now, but again food-friendly but pretty elegant stuff,” said Swifka.

    Butchers & Barbers will be open Tuesday through Sunday starting at 6 p.m.

    Butchers & Barbers, 6531 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-461-1464

    – See more at: http://www.lamag.com/liquidlablog/first-look-butchers-barbers-cocktail-program/#sthash.SJPSjVbm.dpuf

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    UPDATED NOVEMBER 18, 2014

    L.A.’s Best New Bars

    Where to drink this fall

    By Katherine Kims
    Contributor

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    Best New Bars in Los Angeles 2014

    Illustration: Libby VanderPloeg

    With a new season comes the arrival of many recently opened places to quench our thirst, perfect for going classy in Hollywood, drinking seaside in Santa Monica or spending a late night in West Hollywood.

    Whether you’re in the mood for fancypants cocktails, wines by the glass or beer on draft, here are the best new bars to spend a night out.

    ① Brilliantshine, Santa Monica
    Most L.A. cocktail bars seem to start with Julian Cox. The barman behind Petty Cash, Bestia, Picca et al. recently debuted his Santa Monica flagship with partner Josh Goldman. The theme: seaside saloon. Grab a stool at the charming old-timey bar (think: vintage piano, brass fixtures) and order a Rome with a View ($10)—Campari, dry vermouth, soda and a lime wheel—or Spread Love, It’s the Brooklyn Way ($12) with rye whiskey, China-China bitters, dry vermouth and maraschino. There are Peruvian bites, too—we love the shrimp ceviche ($11) and lobster uni rice ($21). You can even post up for the night on the alfresco patio.

    ② Grandpa Johnson’s, Hollywood
    Keep it classy with a taste of Old Hollywood. Blink and you’ll miss the unmarked entrance. Once inside, the Art Deco bar reveals wall-to-ceiling chevron panels, white marble tops, mirrored walls and a swanky 24-foot-long brass bar. The cocktails are just as fancy, dressed up in Darjeeling syrup, rose water and guava purée. Toast to T-Bizz ($14), named after owner Johnny Zander’s grandfather, made with bourbon, ginger syrup, apple cider, amaro, lemon juice, bitters and a lemon wedge.

    ③ The Nice Guy, West Hollywood
    Continuing on the throwback theme, the Nice Guy serves cocktails with a side of mafiosa. Translation: red-sauce shared plates, old-school cocktails, booths (even a family chef’s table) and a sultry songstress. Go for a Moscow Mule ($15) served in a proper copper mug—you can upgrade to a punch bowl ($350) like a boss—or Mother’s Milk ($15), a frothy mix of vodka, house-made chocolate milk and soda water. Also of note: a dedicated whiskey menu, because that’s what men do.

    RELATED   Zoe Nathan’s Santa Monica »

    ④ Grain, Playa del Rey
    As the name suggests, whiskey is the order of the day. Ask for it straight up, on the rocks or in a cocktail at Playa Provisions’ bar. Your evening will go something like this: oysters followed by clams casino and a lobster roll on an outdoor patio, then a visit to the back room for a night cap. There are more than 60 whiskies from 21-year Elijah Craig Kentucky bourbon ($22) to Nikka Taketsuru Japanese whisky ($28). And even bar bites are made with the brown spirit—don’t miss boozy bourbon milk and warm chocolate cookies ($8).

    ⑤ The Chestnut Club, Santa Monica
    This Santa Monica bar is serious about one thing: cocktails. With Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni of Black Market Liquor as the duo also behind the scenes (err, bar), the drinks here are worth a visit alone. But the lofty, den-like watering hole also has a relaxed neighborhood hangout feel, with comfortable leather booths. The mixed drinks are simple: All 13 list no more than five ingredients. And beer geeks can get into the impressive craft brew list, ranging from local barleywines to double IPAs.

    ⑥ Murph’s, Sherman Oaks
    This Americana-themed bar is the latest to rouse the SFV after-hours scene. Designed to look like a 1930s gas station, Murph’s offers 11 local brews on tap (pulled from wrench handles) and even more by the can. If cocktails are calling, we suggest a standard Oil Change ($10)—a mix of bourbon, ginger and honey—or a rum-laced vanilla Coke float ($10) layered with bitters and vanilla liqueur. Fuel up with bro bar food such as a pimento cheese-topped burger ($14) and spicy fried chicken sandwich ($14). Bonus: Get $20 off your first Uber ride to make the trek back over the hill.

    ⑦ Bacari PDR, Playa del Rey
    Winos can belly up and cheers at this beachside bar. And for good reason: Happy hour brings half-off wines by the glass and $10 liters of sangria, and “open bar” ($20) means 90 minutes of limitless red, white, champagne and sangria (and beer, too). If that doesn’t whet your taste buds, the kitchen slings grilled pizza ($8) and tapas-style cicchetti. Order individual plates ($8) or sample a trio of tastes ($21) ranging from crab crostini to lamb-stuffed eggplant with lemon garlic emulsion.

    Read more: http://www.tastingtable.com/entry_detail/la/18072/Best_New_Bars_in_L_A_.htm#ixzz3JTGeazCJ

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    • Refinery 29 – Best New Restaurants in Los Angeles, November 2014
    • Freds
      Situated atop Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, Freds couldn’t have a more chic locale. The terrace offers top-notch views of the Hollywood Hills, while the menu sources local, fresh ingredients unique to California. In other words, you need to try this spot, pronto.

      Freds at Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Boulevard (at North Camden Drive); 310-276-4400.

    • Butchers & Barbers
      The brothers behind hot spots Pour Vous, Harvard & Stone, and No Vacancy have ventured away from the nightlife realm to open their first restaurant, Butchers & Barbers. Located smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood, the restaurant opened just last week. Hurry up and try it now — before word of its deliciousness gets out.

      Butchers & Barbers, 6531 Hollywood Boulevard (near North Cahuenga Boulevard); 323-461-1464.

    • Kye’s
      Whether you’re vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, or just appreciate a health-conscious meal, you gotta check out Kye’s in Santa Monica. The restaurant’s tagline — “Super tasty superfoods to go” — sums up the fare perfectly: It’s delicious, it’s healthy, and it’s quick. What more could you want?

      Kye’s, 1518 Montana Avenue (at 16th Street); 310-395-5937.

    • Stir Market
      A restaurant, market, wine bar, and cafe hybrid, this place is pretty much a one-stop culinary shop. Inspired by European food halls, Stir Market just opened its doors yesterday(!), so head over now to take the first peek.

      Stir Market, 7475 Beverly Boulevard (at North Gardner Street); 323-879-8283.

    The Springs
    In addition to being a 100% raw, organic, and vegan restaurant, The Springs also boasts a yoga studio, wellness center, and organic juice bar. So, really, you can just chill here all day long.

    The Springs, 608 Mateo Street (at Mesquit Street); 213-223-6226

     

    • The Oyster Gourmet
      The newest resident of downtown’s Grand Central Market, The Oyster Gourmet comes complete with a crazy-cool, oyster-inspired bar that you need to see to believe.

      The Oyster Gourmet, 317 South Broadway (near West 3rd Street); 213-624-2378.