Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hammer Time

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929. Oil on canvas, 42" x 42."

Last week I got together with a bunch of my artist cronies and saw the color show at MoMA (again) and also saw the Whitney Biennial. Not much to get the heart racing in either one (my companions enjoyed the color show more than I, and the consensus opinion of the Biennial was thumbs-down), but we talked a great deal about contemporary currents, particularly in curation and scholarship.

The Biennial, for all the controversy it usually generates, was safe and sleepy: it had that grad school look that's been fairly common coin for the last ten years or more, and nothing seemed to really break much new ground. And the whole thesis for the MoMA show was color as system or found object; reducing or eliminating the role of the aesthetic/emotional choice in selecting, mixing, and combining colors.

The catalog essays for both of these exhibits lionize the reduction, sublimation, or outright rejection of the kind of aesthetic decisions that artists have always made and the studio practices most often associated with visual art. In the case of the Biennial particularly, artists were expected to address the zeitgeist with force and clarity, and visual decisions were made principally to that end.

So how did this happen? The genesis is clear enough, and can be in large measure linked to Clement Greenberg's unprecedented power and influence in the post-war period. He was brilliant, he was a bully, and the in the years following his highly influential "Modernist Painting" (1960), he turned what started at as a set of smart observations about painting into a set of cumbersome demands. He had an unflappable belief in connoisseurship, but insisted on using the word "taste," making him an easy target of derision; he was clearly referring to his own taste.

By the late 60's the Vietnam protests were raging and the civil rights movement was peaking in intensity. All institutions of power were coming under heavy scrutiny (as they always should be), and this included the power centers of art. Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual, and Feminist Art hewed away at Greenberg and Modernism, and it and he fell like a big, dead tree. Art that was visual in its conception was linked to the old regime, and art that critiqued power was associated with the revolution.

Fast forward forty years. The rebels of the 60's and 70's are now curators at big museums (like MoMA and the Whitney), department chairs in BFA and MFA programs, sitting on juries for grants and group exhibitions, writing for the leading magazines, and so on. In a familiar and always ironic cycle, they have become the thing they hated: the Art Establishment. At this late date, deriding visual art as a symbol of entrenched power is disingenuous to say the least.

Interestingly, I think that a more visual approach could and would be embraced by young artists; I see no shortage of talent in my freshman classes, and there is an enthusiasm for the kind of emotional content that can be generated by the deft handling of shape and color and scale. I think the real resistance would come from the intellectual and academic community.

It is fundamentally easier to write and about subject matter (which is narrative in nature) than it is to write about the visual (which is non-verbal in character). Try peeling off 500 words about a painting that is red and blue and you'll see what I mean; this kind of criticism and curation has essentially vanished, and whatever you think about Greenberg, it is undeniable that he could articulate these things better than anyone.

Those critical to a primarily visual approach to art would say that in the proto-fascist Bush era, art that is aesthetic in character is somehow living in denial of the global turmoil and misery that presently seems so intractable. But I disagree; the eye and mind set free are and always have been conduits for change, and power has always recognized this: Stalin imprisoned Malevich in 1930, putatively as a suspected spy, but in reality for painting squares. Stalin was afraid of paintings of squares.

It all begs the old question: Is art the mirror that reflects society and culture, or the hammer that shapes it? The artist who is perpetually critiquing and commenting on society and current events is not leading, but following; it's an inherently passive position.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 16

The color show at MoMA was kind of a dud - a few terrific things to be sure (Morellet, Richter, Flavin, Lewitt), but mostly so-so. And the fault lies in the current preference for high-concept curation, in which a Big Idea is posited and disparate works are wedged in to fit.

So here's my low-concept idea for a show: "Color Painting, 1890 to Present." The curatorial idea doesn't need to be cumbersome, the big ideas are already in the paintings. Here's a small selection of the works that would be included:

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, the West Portal and Saint-Romain Tower, Full Sunlight, Harmony in Blue and Gold, 1894. Oil on canvas, 42" x 29."

Paul Cezanne, Chateau Noir, 1904-06. Oil on canvas, 29" x 36."

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918. Oil on canvas, 31" x 31."

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956. Oil on canvas, 91" x 71."

Morris Louis, Claustral, 1961. Oil on canvas, 85" x 65."

Larry Poons, Han-San Cadence, 1963. Acrylic and fabric dye on canvas, 72" x 144."

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: On an Early Sky, 1964. Oil on hardboard, 48" x 48."

Jules Olitski, Comprehensive Dream, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 135" x 93."

Julian Stanczak, Concurrent Colors, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 45" x 46."

Bridget Riley, Big Blue, 1981-82. Oil over acrylic on linen, 92" x 79"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The 99th Kentucky Derby, 1973

There's nothing especially interesting to report this week on the 2008 Derby hunt, so I thought I'd put up a flashback to one of the more memorable contests. In the 1973 Derby, Secretariat started near the rear of the pack and came on strong to catch Sham at the top of the stretch and win by two-and-a-half lengths.

When people look back on Secretariat's Triple Crown run, the race which inspires the greatest awe is that 31-length victory in the Belmont stakes. While his Derby is not as visually impressive, there is a special distinction to this race (besides the fact that, like the Belmont, it still stands as the record-time for the race and distance).

Essentially all racehorses slow down as a race progresses, particularly a long race; the winner is the horse that slows down least. Secratariat ran each successive quarter-mile faster than the last - he was speeding up for the entire mile-and-a-quarter.

His fractions for the race were: 25 1/5, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5 and 23 seconds.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Can't Wait to See It

From Holland Cotter's review of the 2008 Whitney Biennial:

"Devotees of painting will be on a near-starvation diet, with the work of only Joe Bradley, Mary Heilmann, Karen Kilimnik, Olivier Mosset and (maybe) Mr. Thompson to sustain them. Hard-line believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog."

Monday, March 3, 2008

"Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today" at MoMa

This review makes me wonder whether this show is going to be a breath of fresh air or a slap in the face. Either way, I'm looking forward to it and taking both my classes to see it. Stay tuned for a "No Hassle" review.