Tuesday, May 1, 2007

You Could Have Knocked Me Over With a Feather

Yesterday morning I got the following e-mail from a good pal (Thanks, Richard):

COVER STORY

OP ART REVISITED: new artforum

Needless to say, I went out to the newsstand and plunked down $10 (for a magazine!?), to see what they had to say. There are two side-by-side articles, one by David Rimanelli and one by Sarah K. Rich. They both cover the two concurrent Op survey shows, one in Columbus and one in Frankfurt, and both felt the need to say a lot of really dismissive things about Op before they admit, grudgingly and conditionally, that some of the work was really good. A sampling from Rimanelli's piece (entitled "Beautiful Loser"):

"...Why should we be looking at this mid-century anachronism again? What are we supposed to learn? The cynic no doubt wonders whether all those museum curators, academics, and artists who have been mining the '60's for good material finally found the well dried up - meaning, Op is all that's left to rediscover."

He muses that maybe the correct way to view Op is not as art, but as a socio-cultural phenomenon: The way that the general public accepted and even loved it, and the way it was so quickly transformed into posters and dresses, etc. There's another point here that he intimates without actually stating: maybe Op is now so thoroughly reviled that it can be resurrected with quotation marks around it as a metaphor and critique of blah blah blah. Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin certainly did this with magazine illustration and porn, which were once, as hard as it is to believe now, at the bottom of the aesthetic heap.

Rimanelli ultimately concedes:

"But now I am compelled to reconsider the Op-is-junk bias. Op, regardless of its numerous contemporaneous detractors and of the dim fate usually accorded it by art history, is, in its best moments, a movement of keen visual, intellectual, and historical interest."

How magnanimous! The Rich piece has a similar trajectory; both writers give up their praise for Op with just a little less difficulty than it would take to remove their own tonsils. It's also interesting to note the number of times both articles cite the Op-hating Greenberg, who is generally persona non grata in the pages of Artforum. Both writers conclude that the visual discomfort caused by many Op works juxtaposed with their instant accessibility is a metaphor for modernity - pleasure and pain, gluttony and nausea, and so on, all mixed together. It's hard to write about art.

A few observations:

Op was in large part dismissed because of the rapidity with which it was absorbed into pop culture and the extent to which the general public embraced it. This bears a closer look: before Impressionism, civilians liked art. The modern-day art museum generally has one night a week in which admission is free. The French salons had the exact opposite system: admission was charged one day per week so the rich could enjoy the show without having to rub elbows with the unwashed masses who generally packed the galleries.

This all changed with the modern painters (Impressionists, Post-impressionists, Cubists, etc.) who were roundly misunderstood and often loathed by the public and the art establishment. And this remains the irresistible model for the artist today: the rebel outsider. The irony, of course, is that today there is a whole institutional, academic, and commercial apparatus that can't wait to welcome the newest rebel outsider. But the mythology persists.

Interestingly, when elements of pop culture are appropriated into fine art, it doesn't generate the same level of distaste as the reverse of this process, even though the former is a deliberate choice made by the artist (again, Yuskavage and Currin among many, many others). The Op painters' work was appropriated without their consent, and in the case of Bridget Riley, in spite of her protests. I imagine that a person who sees no contradiction in this would say something about how Op was too easy to like, which suggests shallowness. But just because the general public likes this or that art, it doesn't necessarily mean they get it. When art is sucked into pop culture (as it always is, eventually), it's usually the most superficial aspects that make the trip.

All the literature suggests, correctly, that Color Field was overthrown in a rebellion against Greenberg's unprecedented power, and that Op was shot down because it quickly became the jetsam and flotsam of pop culture. But I've always believed that there's an additional factor in the demise of both styles, and of abstract painting generally, that isn't discussed as much. And the reason it isn't discussed as much is because the people most capable of discussing it are responsible.

It's hard to talk/write about art that's primarily visual; that espouses a primarily non-verbal experience. What can you say about an enveloping color experience? I recently read a review by Jerry Saltz of the latest Carroll Dunham solo exhibition. There's a picture in the show of a gender-ambiguous cartoon figure about to rape himself/herself with a pistol. Saltz weaves an extended metaphor about Iraq, the failure of western culture, and the demise of American hegemony from this image. It's hard to imagine that he could have extracted this from a picture that was, say, yellow. As I mentioned earlier, Rimanelli and Rich, who finally concede that some Op art is good art, really don't speak about it in visual terms; both wrap up their pieces with the conclusion that Op is a mirror for the modern dystopia.

I think that the renewed interest in Op is in large measure a renewed interest in visual art, even as the Artforum writers and editors try and recast it as something else.