“Queer Art” and Lesbians

Girls Night Out

As was explained earlier, after the Witch Hunts of the seventeenth century, women who were single, independent, and sometimes lesbian were able to function with more freedom from legal persecution than their male counterparts. So great was the imperative to marry and reproduce in the nineteenth century, men who were “straight” and did not wed were looked upon with suspicion for not doing their reproductive duty. Women, if they were single and presumably virtuous, were excused from such complains and were allowed to form female based households. However, due to an expansion of economic and social opportunities for women, lesbians, openly identified as such, are more a product of the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The Great War ended the nineteenth century and along with it, the complex network of moral, religious and social restrictions that had restrained the lives of women. After the slaughter on the battlefields, it was impossible to take authorities seriously and this was especially true of male authority figures who had led millions to their futile deaths. With many women left without male protectors and on their own, the females of the post-war period cut their hair and skirts short, discarded underwear, took up smoking and drinking and fast dancing, and drove cars and sped away from their old lives. Some of these women came together as lesbian couples and entered into the intellectual worlds of art and literature as new voices for the newly liberated society.

Described in Tirza True Latimer’s book, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Paris was a center for artistic lesbians, led by the famous couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas and Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. Confining herself to a discrete black, white and gray palette, Brooks painted restrained portraits of the lesbian community in Paris during the 1920s. Her early works, like White Azelas of 1910 are related to Art Nouveau but by the post-war decade, Brooks had found her own linear style. Sometimes, as with The Black Cap from 1907 there are earth tones in her paintings but her self portrait, with her flat black hat and sharp edged white shirt that is more common. As explained in Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and and Romaine Brooks, Brooks, a fragile personality, hinged her life on that of her flamboyant companion and leader of a glittering salon and, for a brief period, painted the inhabitants of a privileged world.

Bonnie Zimmerman wrote in Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, long, a city fascinated by lesbians, that Paris was, from the nineteenth century, a place of refuge for communities of women who would not be allowed to live anywhere else in such freedom. The only other city that offered such opportunities was post-war Berlin. This brief period of cultural freedom in France, during which women could still not vote, was cut short by the Second World War and the writings and art of these talented lesbians, the “Sapphos” and the “Amazons” were marginalized. Not until the women’s movement of the 1970s did this remarkable community with the writers such as Radclyffe Hall and painters such as Romaine Brooks and photographer Claude Cahun were recovered. The portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge who appropriated male attire from the monocle to the cravat to the trousers to the stern expression seems to trenchantly sum up a brave and forward looking women who were far ahead of the their time.

The portraits of Romaine Brooks were the visual equivalents of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness. Today these sharp-dressed women, such as Peter, A Young English Girl, in their masculinized attire would be right at home in any fashion magazine. Another fifty years would have to pass before self-identified “lesbian artists” would be visible in the art world again. Although there are many lesbian artists, most women prefer to exist simply as “artists,” but there are those, such as Nicole Eisenman who have explicitedly lesbian content. Eisenman’s work ranges beyond lesbian content and is often a commentary on contemporary life in all its mindless absurdities and there is no doubt with its confrontational political content (lesbian or not) would not be well-received outside of the narrow art worlds of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and the international art fairs.

Eisenman is never precious about there art and is well-known for her bravura murals which she paints inside galleries and then paints them out when the show is over. Some of these murals comment, in the best Postmodern fashion, upon the history of art, especially art made by men. Other murals are amusingly anti-male and rather brutal in their assessment of the male of the species. In one series, Eisenman imagines a girl scout troop which has kidnapped a scout master from the boy scouts and have lashed him to a stake and used him as kindling for their campfire. Later in the series, the girls use penises for weenies in a weenie roast. Like her Los Angeles counterpart, Kim Dingle, Eisenman imagines an all female world, teaming with colorful and often violent inhabitants, on the move without men.

Dingle, who prefers to not be identified or limited as a “lesbian artist,” has created a world of wild girls, little girls in white dresses, a danger to society and to themselves. Free from adults and male authority figures these little girls live in the wild, like feral children. One of the veteran women artists who identified herself as a lesbian is Harmony Hammond who wrote a book on Lesbian Art in America published in 2000. On the cover is a photograph of Catherine Opie, a Los Angeles artist who produced a body of work on “butch” lesbian culture. Hammond was a stalwart of the feminist movement and became famous for her sculptures which features bonds and bindings, referring to the strictures on women and their lives.

Opie, a very intelligent artist from Cal Arts, showed a shocking side of lesbian life: one of tattoos, piercings, and cutting. There is a domestic side of Opie, who lives in a “transitional neighborhood” near USC with her partner and their children that has emerged in her later work with themes quite at odds with her earlier work which was equal to Mapplethorpe in its explicit portrait of homosexual life. When you go to her name on the internet, you will find a “report images” link for offensiveness. Opie who is a “leatherdyke” combines domesticity with transgression, showing herself as a lesbian and a devoted mother and a denizen of an underground of sado-masochism. Like many homosexuals, Opie was radicalized by the AIDS crisis as victims were “marked” by society and shunned.

The idea of “marking” as a form of “identity,” which categorized some people as untouchable is literalized by Opie through the tattooing and scarification of her own body in her photographs. Although it is this sometimes shocking subject matter that made her reputation, most of her work is a study of urban landscapes and suburban settings and the people who live quiet lives in America. The distance between Opie and Brooks is now a hundred years and the LGBT community has become more visible, more vocal and more politically active. But, as with Brooks and her lesbian community in Paris, the lesbian and gay communities are archipelagos, surrounded by an often uncomprehending America. Even in the twenty-first century, it still does not seem possible for men and women of whatever sexual inclination to simple produce “art,” without an adjective or a label.

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Gay Art

The Many Shades of Gay

As the previous posts pointed out, many artists who were gay were caught up in attempts from various forces, both political and religious, to censor art. Confused and angered that art would be attacked in a land of free speech, the American art world directed its protests towards the red herring of censorship. Many gay artists were able to make gay-themed art with little or no interference, so it would seem that the incitement for censorship was not necessarily homosexual content but displays of Otherness in sites where the larger public could see this diversity. There are undoubtedly sincere individuals who honestly believe for moral and/or religious reasons that homosexuality is against their religion and their rights to their beliefs are protected by the Constitution.

However, the so-called “Culture Wars” begin when personal beliefs enter into the domain of “free speech” and the freedom to pursue happiness. Art was and still is on the front lines of those Culture Wars, and because art is public, it is always in the line of fire from those who want to remove anything they (personally) consider “offensive” from public view. The more precise problem of art censorship was a political one: people making statements through art that were not welcomed by other people. While the art world ignores the conservative culture, the conservative segments of American society are very concerned about the world of visual arts.

The censorship of gay art is less about the art and more about the “gay:” homosexuals were and are, legally in many states, second-class citizens, denied the rights enjoyed by “straight” people. Any threat coming from politicalized art to that “moral” order would be met with resistance, suggesting that the goals of conservative movements is political control and silencing of voices that presented another point of view. In other words, one can ask, is the issue one of the censorship of art or the domination of a minority? The art that has been targeted for censorship has been the kind of art that seems easy to read and that is susceptible to misinterpretation from those who refuse to inform themselves on the content.

Perhaps the level of difficulty in understanding homosexual art explains why some artists, whose work is more layered or subtle, are ignored by the religious and moral authorities. Other self-identified “queer” artists include David McDermott and Peter McGough who were among the earliest queer artists to emerge as a working couple. In order to understand McDermott and McGough, who did activist art on the margins, one has to understand the entire history of photography and a particular era in English history and numerous cultural references from the past. Like old photographs and early movies, their photographs are tinted in old fashioned tones, blues, lavenders and grays.

The pair are best known as photographers and in 1994, the pair did a photo book, The History of Photography, in which they rephotographed and restaged genres of photographs from the nineteenth century. Many of these images depicted the art couple, dressed up in period clothes and posing as a typical Victorian or Edwardian married couple. The pair lived in New York City on Avenue C and recreated a Victorian way of life in their apartment and used the fussy décor for their photography. To pose as a contented couple from the era of Oscar Wilde in the time of AIDS was a very political position, but the conceptual works of McDermott and McGough were subtle and visually not shocking, well within the intellectual realm and out of reach of the conservatives.

McDermott and McGough were part of a growing coterie of artists who were “out of the closet.” By the 1990s, “coming out” was a major narrative for queer people and many, like McDermott and McGough came out loud and proud. The couple was associated with other gay artists in the East Village scene in Manhattan during the 1980s, such as Keith Haring who worked hard to raise AIDS awareness. Keith Haring began as a “street artist” with Jean-Michel Basquiat, staking out the subway tunnels as his territory. The walls of the waiting areas of the stations had bulletin boards reserved for advertisements.

While waiting for new advertisements, the boards were covered with black paper and Haring would draw his signature line drawings with white chalk on the paper. Films of his fugitive invasions of the subway territory show an assured hand swiftly creating complex line drawings populated with humans and animals. Like Basquiat, Haring made his debut in the word of fine art in the late eighties and found fame and fortune with a wide range of works that included paintings, murals and graphic arts. When the AIDS epidemic swept the art world, Haring and other artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, worked hard to educate people, men and women, to the dangers of careless sex.

It was, in fact, this drawing of the “radiant baby” that inspired art critic, René Richard’s groundbreaking article, The Radiant Child, which focused on Haring and mentioned Basquiat in passing. Richard’s inspiration for the title of the article was Haring’s Radiant Baby, a child, drawn in outline, on his/her hands and knees, was surrounded by rays of light. Unlike Basquiat who quickly left his public persona as “Samo” behind, Haring’s career was largely devoted to public art and dedicated to the art education of children. Haring, like many of his colleagues, was diagnosed with AIDS and established a foundation for AIDS awareness before he died in 1990.

Although he outlived Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz also turned his attention to the decimation caused by AIDS in the arts community. Like Goldin, Wojnarowicz chronicled the dying moments of the victims of the disease in his art. Part of the East Village crowd, he lived long enough to witness the destructive assault on the arts by politicians in Washington, D. C. who called certain kinds of art “pornography.” He actually sued and won against a Mississippi-based group that had misrepresented his art as pornography. Wonjnarowicz was a writer and a visual artist and many of his images combined image and text. The artist produced four bodies of writings and just before his death in 1992, he did a series of readings for the benefit of a program for needle exchange (sharing needles among drug users was a major factor in the spread of AIDS).

The veterans of gay art would certainly be Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore), a British couple who began in the late sixties as conceptual artists, working collaboratively. They became famous in 1969 doing their signature performance piece, Singing Sculpture, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Dressed in neat gray suits with their faces bronzed like sculptures, the two initiated their art practice of putting themselves, their faces and bodies and their lives and their English heritage at the center of their art. But these artists also did text and image graphics, using the grid format, which resembled stained glass windows for cathedrals, the Medieval way of telling stories and teaching moral and ethical truths. The audience has watched the duo age over the past forty years from innocent young men to wise old men (still in the same suits) who have made profound comments on the alienating world of their time. As they explained,

Our subject matter is the world. It is pain. Pain. Just to hear the world turning is pain, isn’t it? Totally, every day, every second. Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human person, the complexity of life.

Because of the small number of people any one performance could reach, they began to make films, such as, The Nature Of Our Looking (edition 4), 1970, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (edition 25), 1972, In The Bush (edition 25), 1972, and Portrait Of The Artists As Young Men(edition 25), 1972. As the pair became more famous, films about them proliferated: The Red Sculpture 1975, The World of Gilbert and George (1981), Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture (1991), Gilbert and George: Daytripping (1992), Gilbert & George , The South Bank Show (1997) and The Fundamental Gilbert and George (1997) and No Surrender of 2oo7.

Although Conceptual Art tended to be non-political, the couple made art that was pointed and activist, perhaps due to the growing politicization of the gay community. It has been noted that Gay Liberation was an American movement, but that this movement spread world wide, having the effect of “Americanizing” gay men everywhere. When the AIDS epidemic began, the art of Gilbert and George, like that of many gay artists, began to focus on queer subject matter. Being British, these artists were not subjected to the criticisms of the American right wing. Gilbert and George use the phrase “Art for All” to describe their art and work in a single and unchanging format for their two dimensional work: a grid which is imposed over their images. Now well-dressed and well-mannered middle-aged British gentlemen, the couple had a show at the DeYoung in San Francisco, winter of 2008, the same year as the film With Gilbert and George, directed by Julian Cole.

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“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.

This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.

One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.

From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.

But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.

By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.

Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”

Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:

The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.

David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.

Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

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Death of the Avant-Garde

HOW THE AVANT-GARDE DIED

When the theorists of the avant-garde wrote of the avant-garde movements and works of art, whether Renato Poggioli in 1968 or Renato Poggioliin 1984, it was from a historical perspective, in the past tense. The question is what killed the avant-garde? When did it die or did it just fade away? Today the avant-garde exists as a nostalgic concept coupled with assertions that a “true” avant-garde is impossible today. Such a statement, like Postmodernism itself, is inherently conservative in that by stating that it is impossible to be ahead of the mainstream art world, thereby discouraging any attempts to challenge the status quo…which is, in and of itself, the condition of being dead.

Several historical paradigm shifts contributed to the death of the avant-garde and all occurred about the same time, in the 1960s. The historical avant-garde depended upon the outsider status of the artist and his or her support group: followers, art writers, dealers and so on. The outsider position in turn depended upon the existence of an establishment that was entrenched and buttressed with vested interests. For the avant-garde artist of the nineteenth century in France, the looming presence of the Academy provided something to rebel against. By the end of the century, the Academy had lost its potency and it was the public which had to be shocked.

The avant-garde probably would have ended sooner if it had not been for the intervention of two world wars. Early in the century, the profitability of contemporary art was clear and after the Great War there was a booming business in “modern art.” That which passed for avant-garde rested, not so much with any inherent “shocking” qualities of the art itself (Amedeo Modigliani was quite classical and tame) but in its ability to distress a conservative art audience. But the nascent art market in London and Paris was cut short by another World War and the art scene moved to New York.

It was here in the post-war financial capital, New York, that the avant-garde really entered its death throes. The concept of the avant-garde was closely linked to the notion of secession and succession. Without any establishment institution to secede from, avant-garde art in New York survived on the impetus of the forward movement of Modernist art. Abstract Expressionism was the logical extension of the developments of European Modernism.

For the avant-garde, the only direction of movement was forward, away from the past and on to the future. But then the impetus to go ahead, to be avant, as it were, simply stopped. The desire to shock through unfamiliarity slipped away. Although it could be augured that the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp were avant-garde, by the time consciousness of their import sunk into the mind of the art world, they had already become history. Therefore, the Dadaesque gestures of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were “shocking” only in the sense that the critics and art dealers were made uneasy by this turn away from the tradition of painting. The imagery itself was quite conventional.

Concurrent with Neo-Dada and Pop Art and its familiar and popular quotations from “low” art was the rise of the art market on a wave of affluence in the 1960s. Although the market would rise and fall over the years, it was clear to art collectors that art would hold its value. The scandal of yesterday would become today’s blue chip old master and by the 1980s everyone, as critic René Richard famously remarked, was afraid of missing out on “the next van Gogh.” The art market was the final coup-de-gras for the avant-garde with even the outsider artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, positioning themselves “outside” the galleries of SoHo. The “new” became only what had not been discovered yet. Anything and everyone could be elevated and absorbed and be made profitable.

With the death of the avant-garde, art lost its ability to shock, to critique, to stay ahead of public mentality. Despairing of the possibility of being “original,” and scoffing at the preventions of “uniqueness” and “authenticity,” so important to the precepts of Modernism, despairing of any hope of original creativity, architects and artists began to rifle through history, freely borrowing and appropriating styles and motifs without regard to source or original purpose. Style became a “look” that was quoted out of historical context and this new eclecticism was less an homage to history than a freewheeling seizure of relics in a self-conscious manner.

Pre-Postmodern artists began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over.

Rather than the innocence of “pure art” produced by the eccentric starving artist who would probably die from poverty—the van Gogh myth—the artist became a public figure, a new rock star. A collector did not buy a particular painting but a “Warhol” to round out a cache of Pop Art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire, who could have predicted the transition of art as fad and consumer good. The art market co-opted and transformed even the most defiant and deviant gestures into a financial transaction.

The mock stardom of art superstar Jeff Koons combined everything that was anti-avant-garde—deliberate kitsch, commercial success, and a cynical celebration of art as commodity. The “new” became the “latest” art sensation and in his turn Jeff Koons became yesterday’s art star and became a blue chip old master. In its nostalgic posture towards the past and in its self-conscious historicism, Postmodernism certainly played its part in the demise of the avant-garde, but by the 1980s any art form, however, unexpected or unconventional became absorbed into the open maw of the ever-hungry art market. “Art” became a signifier” of its owner’s cultural status hanging above the Barcelona sofa in a loft in Chelsea.

 

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The Institutional Theory of Art

HOW OBJECTS BECOME “ART”

In writing The Artworld, art writer and philosopher, Arthur Danto, laid out a history of how art history had to change its theories of what art was supposed to be in the face of new objects. He said, “Suppose one thinks of the discovery of a whole new class of artworks as something analogous to the discovery of a whole new class of facts anywhere, viz., as something for theoreticians to explain,” and mentioned the shift away from the Imitation theory of art when Post-Impressionism came on the scene. He continued, “Suppose, then, tests reveal that these hypotheses fail to hold, that the theory, now beyond repair, must be replaced. And a new theory is worked out, capturing what it can of the old theory’s competence, together with the heretofore recalcitrant facts.” This was Danto’s way of laying the groundwork for yet another aesthetic reordering.

By the time Danto was writing in 1964, a new definition of art was long overdue. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp opened the door to a question everyone thought had been answered: “What is art?” If “anything”, even a bicycle wheel, even a bottle rack, even a urinal, could be “art”, then how can the “precincts” of art be protected from “non” or “not” art? The power shifts from the “art” itself to the gatekeepers, those–the artists—who are (self)-empowered to define “art”. Today this outcome seems self-evident, but in the early years of the twentieth century, Duchamp was an underground artist, understood only by a very few individuals. He was absorbed first into Dada and then into Surrealism,where the fact that he had redefined art and artist was interpreted as “anti-art.”

Whether they were influenced by Duchamp or not, both Neo-Dada and Pop artists began (re)making ordinary objects. Danto approached the results with caution. On one hand there was enough artistic intervention—Jasper Johns painted, Robert Rauschenberg dumped paint onto a bed, Claes Oldenburg built a bed, shaped like a rhomboid—to make these objects “art” in the traditional sense. But Danto had doubts, “What, after all, prevents Oldenburg’s creation from being a mis- shapen bed? This is equivalent to asking what makes it art, and with this query we enter a domain of conceptual inquiry…”

Several pages later, Danto reaches the heart of the matter: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, shown at the Stable Gallery. “Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket. They happen to be of wood, painted to look like cardboard, and why not?” Danto asked, “In fact the Brillo people might, at some slight increase in cost, make their boxes out of plywood without these becoming artworks, and Warhol might make his out of cardboard without their ceasing to be art.”

After puzzling over the Brillo Boxes and their status as “art,” Danto concluded,

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago.

So, art is made by the theory of art which is in turn made by at the art world. Art is what the art world accepts. The concept of the “artworld”—one word—was taken up later by the aesthetician George Dickie who suggested a more complex theory of art that rested upon the institution, which was known as the “institutional theory of art.” As Dickie pointed out later, the artworld was at the heart of the institutional theory. “A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or some persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” Dickie was concerned about the framework of the institution.

For the philosopher the artist and the audience were the necessary elements of the institution’s framework. The artist is aware that what she is producing is art and the audience is aware that what he is looking at is art. In addition to these two major actors are what Dickie call “supplementary” actors: critics, curators, teachers, directors, and dealers, all of whom are part of the institution. All of these agents and their acts are governed by rules. These “rules” are conventions.

On the surface, it would seem that the theories of Danto and Dickie, who are often coupled, are co-extensive but, in fact, there are important distinctions between the two. Danto, an art critic, had to account for the presence of a set of Brillo Boxes as “art.” Dickie, an aesthetician, had to redefine art. For Dickie the ontology of “art” was its artifactuality, i.e., it had to exist as “art.” The issue of intrinsic or extrinsic properties was neither here nor there as long as the artifact deemed “art” existed. However, after two decades of dealing with the impact of Duchamp on the definition of art, by 1984 Dickie had to rethink this early theory of art as artifact and take into account the fact of an object that was untouched by the artist. In other words, the emphasis shifted to the institution or the artworld.

An art world system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an art world public,” Dickie concluded. In his 2009 book, How to Study Art Worlds, Hans van Maanen, concluded his chapter on George Dickie by explaining the importance of his theory:

Firstly, there is his concept of roles and rules, which clarifies the significance of conventions in making an art world system op- erate; secondly, there is his emphasis on the essential role of the public, a public which exists as a more or less prepared addressee of the artist’s activity.

The modernist or traditional perspective was that art was eternal and absolutely recognizable and independent of the system of cultural production. An institution cannot make art, only an artist can make art. Art comes, not from a site of production but from art itself. Only an artist makes art. However, starting with the belated recognition of the importance of Duchamp, from Neo-Dada to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual Art, it became clear that the the two hundred year definition of art was untenable.

Danto and Dickie inherited the problem of how to patrol the borders of the art world. For Danto it was a question of who or what was to be admitted to the precincts of the artworld. For Dickie it was the nature of the framework of the artworld and the mode of its reception of the artifact. Who or what would be empowered? Who or what would be would be anointed? When George Dickie implied that an object could become legitimized as “art” if it was “recognized” as such by the art institutions, his institutional theory of art refuted the notion that there was an essential ontology to art.

Art was relative, contingent, and dependent upon the existence of institutional space. The art institution was more than a physical one of museums and galleries, it was also a product of reading about art by an art audience, writing about art by art historians and art critics and current conversations about art–art discourse, all of which contributed to the “making” of an artist or a work of art through naming and designation. With the work of these two writers, “art” was disconnected from its traditional moorings—beauty and Greek art. Suddenly art could be anything; an artist could be anyone; the audience could be everyone; art could be anywhere. All the “institution” had to do was to acknowledge the presence of the artifact and “art” was “made.”

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Defining Minimal Art, Part Two

THE DIALECTICS OF MINIMALISM AS DISCOURSE

Part Two

As an art movement, Minimalism was one of the first to attempt to establish its own art writing and its artists attempted to assert themselves against the art critics. By the mid-sixties, cracks in the edifice of Modernist art writing had begun to appear. From the years of Neo-Dada and Pop, avant-garde art had been moving beyond the limits of formalist writing. Given its basis in Kantian ideas, which appeared to diminish the significance of content or subject matter, formalist art writing had limited itself of an analysis of the surface elements of the object: line, color, form, shape, texture, composition, and so on. One could, of course, write of an Andy Warhol in a formalist manner, concentrating on the Modernist “flatness” of the picture plane, but such an account would have little of significance to say of the social conditions of its making or the cultural production of the imagery. The art world had moved beyond the art critics, leaving a rare opening for new writers and new kinds of writers.

The previous post discussed the definition of Minimalism and laid out the Minimalist “case” against Abstract Expressionism. Although Minimalist objects were three-dimensional, Minimalism was not concerned with sculpture; the target of Minimalism was tradition of Modernist painting itself. When Donald Judd wrote of Minimalism in Specific Objects in 1965, he opens his essay by stating,

“The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions…The main thing wrong with painting,” he elaborated, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”

When Judd stated, “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting,” he was also pointing out the modern sculpture had been a reaction to modern painting and has not been a thing unto itself. David Smith and Anthony Caro transformed abstract geometric paintings into the third dimension and these works, especially for Smith, tend to be frontal, like painting. Judd similarly compared Franz Kline and Mark di Suvero, stating, “Di Suvero uses beams as if they were brush strokes, imitating movement, as Kline did.”

“The main thing wrong with painting,” Judd explained, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it. In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of the picture. The composition must react to the edges and the rectangle must be unified, but the shape of the rectangle is not stressed; the parts are more important, and the relationships of color and form occur among them.”

For decades painting had dominated and sculpture had been relegated to the position of follower. Nothing had challenged the hegemony of painting which was why painting had to be Judd’s major target. Painting is relational or composed and Judd lauded Frank Stella’s painting for eliminating the practice of arranging parts in relation to a whole:

“Stella’s shaped paintings involve several important characteristics of three-dimensional work. The periphery of a piece and the lines inside correspond. The stripes are nowhere near being discrete parts. The surface is farther from the wall than usual, though it remains parallel to it. Since the surface is exceptionally unified and involves little or no space, the parallel plane is unusually distinct. The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another. A painting isn’t an image. The shapes, the unity, projection, order and color are specific, aggressive and powerful.”

Judd’s analysis of Stella’s work understood his friend’s painting in a way that was similar to the analysis in Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters” of 1965, with its excellent section on the painter Frank Stella. Fried, like Judd, saw Stella’s paintings as shapes stamped out and thrusting themselves forward, projecting aggressively from the wall. With the hindsight afforded by the past fifty years, it is possible to place Frank Stella’s work out of the category of Modernist painting—which was where Fried analyzed it and to position his work from 1958-1965 in the Minimalist column. As Merve Ünsal wrote in an undated article, Minimalist Art vs. Modernist Sensibility: A Close Reading of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,

“The issue of defining Minimalism is thus one of modernist genealogy, where different critical opinions contextualize the work. The multiple narratives of modernism were an issue for Frank Stella himself, whose work was one of the central elements of disagreement between the Minimalists and Michael Fried. Stella’s work was claimed by Minimalist Carl Andre, as well as by Michael Fried. Retrospectively, Fried commented, ‘Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul.’”

Judd was alert to the object-like qualities of Stella’s work and he was careful to set it apart from historical painting and sculpture. When referring to Minimalism, Judd used the term “three-dimensional work” and explained why the three-dimensional objects solved the problems of painting:

“Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present.” He continued,”In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas.”

As Roberta Smith summed up in her April 2012 article on Frank Stella, Laying the Tracks Others Followed,

“They (his black and metallic paintings) provide a heady sense of the first few fastest-moving years of his development, when he helped bring the Abstract Expressionist chapter of New York School painting to a close and lay the foundation for Minimalism.”

The specificity of the objects rests in the ways in which the “new” works lie outside the precincts of the emotive anthromorphism of sculpture. These works use non-art materials. As Judd explained, “Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art.” In addition, “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive. There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material,” he said.

One of the greatest irritants to a formalist writer or a Modernist critic would be Judd’s flat statement, “A work needs only to be interesting.” Minimalism staked out a claim on a new and unexplored territory outside of the precincts of “art.” “Interesting” was far removed from the concept of art as a transcendent concept and threatened “art’s” claim to uniqueness. In fact, the biggest impediment to writing about Minimalist art was the fact that Minimalism challenged the very definition of “art.” It is on this precise epistemological battleground that the literary skirmishes too place. Clement Greenberg retired from the fray and the battle to save Modernism was left to his acolyte, Michael Fried. Greenberg, however, put his ever-perceptive finger on the Modernist problem with Minimal art:

“Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper…. Yet it would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged or ideated at this moment.”

It is here with Greenberg’s statement on “non-art” that Fried began his analysis. Fried wrote a perceptive essay on Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” in 1967, where he signaled his eventual retreat into nineteenth century art that would begin with, Absorption and Theatricality published in 1980. In many ways, “Art and Objecthood” was dress rehearsal for the book to come. For an object to be “art” this object (painting or sculpture) must “defeat” its object-ness. In other words, a work of art must be unique, singular, a universe of its own, a thing set apart from all the other objects in the world. Minimal art is what Fried calls “literalist” in that it insists on its “objecthood” in order to be “specific,” as artist Donald Judd wrote, and is set apart from the precincts of Modernist definitions of art.

Fried moved immediately in his essay—without any explanatory intervening logical steps—to his conclusion that the objecthood of Minimal art is “theatrical” and non-art: “…the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” The “theatrical” quality of Minimalist three-dimensional works results from the viewer’s body which inhabits the same space as the “object” and the object is not set apart from its environment. A traditional sculpture would be placed on a socle, a painting would be hung on a wall, a vase in a vitrine, and so on.

But the Minimalist work is fully integrated with the space and becomes a stage presence. Furthermore the object is hollow, a condition Fried decrees to be “almost blatantly anthropomorphic” not to mention “a kind of latent or hidden naturalism” which constitutes a kind of “presence.” The viewer has wandered into–not a sacred site for art where the work will be contemplated–but into a theater where s/he will have an experience.

For Fried, Modernist art is fighting for its life or to be more precise, the critic is attempting to salvage the traditional Kantian definition of “art” in all its supposed purity. The success of art, he maintains, lies precisely in their ability to “defeat theater” because art “degenerates” when it approaches theater. Fried would go on to elaborate upon this theory in his 1980 book in which he exalts art that is “absorbed,” that is art which is not “theatrical” and does not play to the audience as if it is an actor on the stage. Only art that is self-suffient can reach the place where it is free of the taint of the real world. For Fried the very literalness of Minimal art rests in its traffic with all that is non-art so that it is “corrupted and perverted by theater.”

Minimalism was theatrical, because it existed only when the viewer was present, performed only for a limited period of time, like a play. As theater, Minimalism could not be defined as “art” in Modernist terms. From the standpoint of Kantian aesthetics, which implied that art had to be independent of life, Minimalism, therefore, was “dependent” upon its audience and upon its site. The lack of reference, the defining characteristic of Western sculpture, the lack of a statement of essentialism, and the intrusion of the quotidian, the utilitarian, and even the non-artistic was considered by the formalists to be a “loss for art,” a “dismantling” of the very definitions of art that was a distinct threat to high art.

Traditional Fine Art existed in a mental space of contemplation and independence and self-absorption, but Minimalism was part of the actual world and interacted with temporality and the audience’s reception. Minimalism also broke with sculpture as representation or analogy of the human body but incorporated the human body in a different fashion. The viewer had to interact with the installation and its objects, over a period of time. Thus the Minimalist object existed only in relation to the viewer and was dependent upon the viewer’s presence, and, therefore, existed in time.

The Minimalist object is repositioned as an object among objects, refusing the sitelessness or the “art space” of idealist sculpture on a pedestal. The viewer enters into a particular space and encounters the Minimal work, which becomes a place in which the spectator intervenes. Thus a body encounters another body–the human meets, not “sculpture” in the traditional sense, but an object located in a specific and defined zone. In sharp contrast to Judd who also condemned anthromorphic forms and claimed that Minimal objects were free of human references, Fried insisted that due to the theatrical elements of Minimalism anthromorphicism was present. At one point, apparently referring to the work of Robert Morris, he mentioned the hollowness or humanness of Minimalist objects. However, few Minimal works are hollow but Fried’s sense of an “encounter” between two beings is intriguing.

Towards the end of the essay, Fried summed up the position of Modernism,

“I want to claim that it is be virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theatre. In fact, I am tempted far beyond my knowledge to suggest that, faced with the need to defeat theatre, it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture—the condition, that is, of existing in, indeed of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present—that the other contemporary modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire.”

What is ironic about the Modernist arguments against Minimalism is that this movement was uniquely dependent upon the art world—these objects were fabricated purely for the esoteric gallery setting. Unlike Abstract Expressionist or Pop paintings, a large gray object by Robert Morris does not blend into the home of an art collector; a temporary grouping of Carl Andre’s metal squares or plain bricks would not survive exposure to the great outdoors. Minimalism, whether the fragile florescent lights of Dan Flavin or the obdurate steel cube of Tony Smith, must be installed in a museum or a gallery. Without the art world as its specific site, Minimal Art could not exist. In addition, if one accepts the “institutional theory of art” put forward by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, then by simply installing these works in the Greene Gallery or the Jewish Museum, the “institution” or the art world had decreed Minimal Art to be “art.”

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s insightful essay can be seen as one of the last strong defenses of Modernism but it is also an excellent analysis of Minimalism. Fried expressed the problems that formalist writing and Modernist theory would have with Process Art, Performance Art, Installation Art, and other artistic expressions that were temporal and ephemeral and contingent on their specific sites and upon their temporary conditions. Today, one might argue against Fried and made a case for art as theater but it is clear that this writer perceptively understood the stakes in the game and knew that Minimalism was changing the rules.

It is an intriguing “coincidence” that Minimalism as an art movement emerged at the precise point in time when Continental philosophy was rethinking the very bases of the Enlightenment. Contemporaneously, Derrida, in 1966, was deconstructing Modernist philosophers, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and Husserl, Barthes was rethinking his own structualism work, such as his book Mythologies, Foucault was reconsidering the “archaeology of knowledge” as ever-changing “discourse,” and Kristeva was re-introducing the Russian concept of intertextuality or hetroglossia. All of these French writers rejected the concept of the “author” and proclaimed the “Death of the Author” and shifted their focus to the importance of plurality of meanings and sources and stressed the lack of origins. While the French writers were dismantling conventional artistic wisdom, the new generation of Minimalist writers were dismantling Modernism, bringing the art world to the edge of Postmodernism.

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Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG (1925-2008)

Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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