The End of the American Avant Garde, Pt. 2

From Stuart Hobbs, The End of the American Avante Garde:

In referring to the New York School artists of the Fifties and the work of some of the art historians who have explicated them Hobbs writes. These scholars describe how the avant garde created an art that expressed life-affirming mythological and religious themes, which members of the van[guard] hoped would contribute to the regeneration of Western culture.

Note: The New York School also runs parallel in significance with the “Beat” writers active in San Francisco in the 50s, as well as the Black Mountain community in North Carolina. Both avant-garde groups devoted to spiritual exploration and purpose.

In another passage:

In postwar America, journalists, critics, gallery owners, museum curators, educators and others interpreted avant-garde work in ways counter to the vanguard’s self-understanding. Far from transforming American culture, cultural Cold Warrior appropriated the radical van as a weapon in the Cold War; curators, gallery owners, and publishers absorbed the advance guard into traditional institutions of culture; and advertisers and businesspeople commodified the movement in consumer culture. The meaning avant gardists gave to their work which they believed was expressed in a form that tapped into a universal human subconscious, proved susceptible to diverse interpretations. Ironically, these alternative readings overwhelmed the vanguard intentions.

I had direct contact as a student with one of the key members of the vanguard, Milton Resnick. The reason I’m able to penetrate so clearly what happened is that from Resnick I learned exactly how the American Avant-Garde was destroyed, not just partially. But purposefully, systematically and entirely. This doesn’t mean the artists were destroyed, although the shattering of their spiritual foundations of the vanguard did kill some of the most noticed ones… Gorky, Pollock and Rothko. To believe in art as a manifestation of spirit and art’s purpose as that of the regeneration of a dying culture is not negotiable with a commercial marketplace. The post on Rothko is a pointed case that shows exactly the rapacious actions of the above community indicted by Hobbs: journalists, critics, gallery owners, museum curators, educators and others.

This same group, although the players have changed, maintain entire control of the narrative of Western Art and this, of course, extends globally now because what is being described is Capitalism not something confined to America. The primary realization is that, as Hobbs writes, these groups acted in opposition to the Avant-Garde’s self-understanding.

This was a power struggle in  which the American painters had no weapons. The power was in the hands of critics like Clement Greenberg, as well as the financial class funding the burgeoning arts community. The Abstract Expressionists were a great artistic American triumph, but a complete failure in terms of their goals.

Reading in the recently released books on Guston, Resnick and Louis Finkelstein one is able to get a much clearer picture of how marginalized the beliefs and real artistic accomplishments of the New York painters had become by the time of the 1960s. I have run into no painters where I live, other than a painter who was with Guston in Rome on the Prix di Rome, who have even the vaguest notion of who the New York School painters were or what they stood for.

Greenberg and the vast network of newly formed arts interests made certain that the spiritual underpinnings and the underpinnings in the subconscious of those painters were obliterated in favor of formalist concerns that had nothing whatsoever to do with the intentions or the reality of the paintings themselves.

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13 Responses to The End of the American Avant Garde, Pt. 2

  1. trueoutsider says:

    Any number of new painters were used to immediately break the backs of the New York School, and it was imperative that these new painters stood directly opposed to the New York School as the New York School defined itself.

    Johns and Rauschenberg were the primary artists used. But a whole array of graduate students like Stella and Frankenthaler were also drafted. The New York School painter had worked a lifetime to get to the point of their breakthrough work. The grad student painters had worked a year or two at most. Stella was put right into the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller’s CIA funded institution, remember. I’ll need to locate Frances Stone Connors book of historical research that examines all this closely. But suffice it to say this isn’ “conspiracy” talk. The actions of the American State Department and CIA were perfectly transparent as it was seen as cultural support of American artists, when in fact it was cultural destruction of American artists.

  2. Frank Stella provides the gibberish language that demolished the premises of the New York School. This is formal language, largely culled from his reading of Greenberg, that identifies the problems of the New York School painters as not understanding design problems. Although the New York artists had decades of training, Stella arrogates it to himself to solve their problems for them in a year or two of graduate study, using masking take and notched canvases. As he puts it “They all seem to get in trouble in the corners.” Absolute cant and nonsense. He had no more idea what painters like de Kooning and Pollock had accomplished than the the janitor that worked in the graduate studios. Probably even less since the janitor wasn’t trying to push them off the stage to get his own spotlight. He lies, wittingly or unwittingly, that the AEs were spending time in the corners fixing them up. And that the “pictorial energy” is compromised. Look at any Pollock painting and you’ll see no “fixing up” in any corners, nor Gorky, nor Rothko, nor de Kooning, nor Resnick.

    But Stella’s transparent is not just laughed out of the room, he’s credited with being a genius. His solution. start notching canvases and making pinstripes echoing the notches. This, the critical establishment takes as, solving Pollock’s problem of not having any “pictorial energy. ” What viewer in their right mind would look at a Stella next to any Pollock painting and think that the Stella was more energetic. Visually it has all the energy of somebody painting siding shingles on a house. There is no a single inflection to the brushstrokes.

    The BIG lie. American painting entered the era of the BIG lie. A small lie wouldn’t suffice. It had to make sure that viewers and other aspiring artists would tremble before the audacity of the BIG lie. To the extent that they became completely dishonest themselves in how they looked at painting. They looked through reading texts and copying each other. They never looked serious at the New York School painting for what it had achieved visually.

    We can hear Stella with his lame nonsense in Emil de Antonio’s film Painters Painting. What is even more instructive is to read the comments below to see how thoroughly some painters became in brainwashing themselves. Instead of painting building on the achievement of the New York School, all those achievments were laid waste and painting because something it had never been in its entire history. Flat. This was counter to anything the New York School intended or anything there paintings were. But flat became the battle cry and to win plaudits and gallery reviews painters complied in droves.

    IN the comments on the first page, toward the end, Autumn cathedral summarizes rather inelegantly. Bu succinctly states the obvious: Utter garbage. No talent, the emperor’s new clothes bullshit. Stella’s paintings did indeed have the shock of the new. But now they have the shock of the old. How can these tedious variations on notched canvas with various single industrial paints waste so much valuable space in an art museum. Can’t somebody reinstall them at Barney’s or somewhere else more appropriate?

    If one continues reading comments all one encounters is philosophical jargon, what Harry Frankfort has termed Bullshit. Frankfort’s book is the most refreshingly and brilliantly written philosophical book of American philosophy to come out in the post-War years. The insidious nature of bullshit is why reading the comments after youtube videos isn’t worth the time it takes to do so. The people throwing the bullshit have no discrimination, nor do they have any deep visual culture to sustain any way of expressing a reasoned opinion.

    Stella even has the nauseating gall to declare his paintings with Rothko’s. And this shows his complete charlatanism and bad faith. On the one had he’s saying his paintings oppose and solve problems the Abstract Expressionist painters couldn’t do themselves. And then, as he says his paintings are accused of being cold and unemotional, (which they obviously are) he tells us he’s just like Rothko and nobody accuses Rothko’s paintings of being cold and unemotional (because they aren’t)

    And this is the function of the BIG lie. The statement is false at face value. He can’t both surpass Rothko and at the same time be Rothko. Of course none of his obvious charlatanism is noticed or cared about. They big money has already been laid down. That’s what was discovered when Pollock died in the car crash. The prices of these New American Paintings were enormous. People who wouldn’t be caught dead buying a Pollock meant that very few of his works had been sold when he died. The gold rush bonanza is what provided artists like Stella with large sums from his IPO, as it were). The man never had a day of struggle in his life. I don’t follow or care how much money painters have. But I imagine Stella was well into the millions early on in his painting life. And the result was his complete ruination. Painting pinstripes on canvas to painting then on BMWs. There’s so little development of anything that might be considered an idea in his work it strikes me that he could have planned his entire painting life with some architectural drafting tools out in the Hamptons with a fresh stock of Stoli on ice to keep him mellowed out.

  3. trueoutsider says:

    Stella goes nowhere and his bullshit gets lazier and lazier. Now he doesn’t even offer his corner problem that he has so “brilliantly” solved. The problem in painting he now describes as how to make art. Bullshit is a sentence that has no value as speech. The real problem of painting is to make painting would be an identical sentence, tautological and meaningless. He’s just spouting words. At this point it doesn’t matter what he says since the financial backing has made his work unassailable. But it was manipulated that way from the get go through his showing at MoMA before even having a painting life outside of art institutions.

    His work goes nowhere because he’s not painting about anything meaningu. There is no spiritual pursuit. He’s making designs. Moving elements around to no purpose other than whatever his aesthetic notions might be.

    “Make what you want to paint on would be my theme. I like to make what I’m then going to paint on…..”: That’s a theme? He has no theme. He’s just scribbling over pieces of metal and juxtaposing them in arbitrary ways. There’s no language being used whatsoever other than simplistic forms unrelated neither to each other, through an emotional or psychological in the artist.

    Stella, if you watch him, is like a man with no conviction at all about what he’s doing.He can babble endlessly still. His work is like some ornament in a corporate lobby or shopping mall. If one didn’t know his work and saw it at the shopping mall it would be considered another of the various eyesores that adorn consumer spaces. Compare it to a Giacometti, Brancusi, Calder… any of those would hold some integrity even though they be vastly damaged by the clutter around them. Stella is just part of the same eyesore one is assaulted by in shopping malls.

    The logical step is to be associated with a corporate brand. That’s all Stella has ever been. Can one imagine Rothko on Mercedes. Pollock on Volkswagen. Is that what painting’s purpose is? Is that an extension of the spiritual purpose of Abstract Expressionsm. No it’s the opposite it’s what all these artists are corporate shills. Mp

    ON top of that the Stella car is another eyesore. He says you have to “think of a new idea. And I didn’t think of this new idea. It was just luck.” New idea? What new Idea is never explained. He’s so lazy now he doesn’t even bother to invent his bullshit. The whole idea is obvious anyway. A bundle of cash for Stella. A promotional gimmick to sex up BMS with contributions from the rest of the hacks born to do anything for a buck: Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc.

    I can only imagine how bored must be with his own work that painting a car would like like a good idea. I see painted cars all over out here. Painted cows. Painted horses. Bad jokes. So advanced art with Frank Stella, Warhol and Company is clearly equivalent to the tourist art one sees in various art cities. Low art, low culture, no culture.

  4. johnk823 says:

    What you have posted about the American Avant Grade is true to heart and if it is all reality, the whole art world is coming apart at the seams. And what, from a hand ful of bullshit, cunning manipulators with the money and power to do with it what ever they please. It like join in and dig in your heels or get a new career. I’ll just paint for my own pleasure and kick back and watch them eventually distroy themselves. I don’t believe it can last for ever, and personally hope they all loose billions of dollars. They’re maybe making the big bucks now through their lies and deception, but all good things, based on the lie, always seem to have an abrupt ending with a great fall.

  5. trueoutsider says:

    I don’t see the art world coming apart at the seams at all, at least as an investment vehicle for people with money. I do see that the middle class art world of tourist art galleries and art fairs and all that will probably be wiped out as America tumbles into an even bigger Depression as the punitive Tea Party and Republicans force public sectors workers out of their jobs and terminate unemployment benefits.

    The fine art word that I’m describing is perfectly healthy. As the ultra wealthy are doing perfectly well. That’s why the China article I posted on News from China shows a second boom in Chinese art:

    Look at it this way John. The book “The $12 Millllion Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson is quite clarifying on all things to do with the Contemporary Art World. America pioneered it. As the world’s great superior, after all it was the American Century, we set the cultural norms and patterns. Published in 2008 Thompson lists the world’s top 25 collectors in alphabetical order: Arnault, Paris luxury goods; Black, New York, investment banking; Broad, Los Angeles, financial services; Cohen, Manchester, retail; Cohen, Greenwich CT, hedge funds; Joannou, Athens, Construction; Lewis, London, financier
    Lindermann, New York, investments; Logan, Vail CO, investment banking; Mughrabi, NYC, textiles; Newhouse Jr. New York, magazines; Perelman, NYC, venture capitalist; Francois Pinault, Paris, luxury goods; Saatchi, London, advertising; Sainsbury, London, supermarkets’ Schwab, Atherton CA, stockbroking; Sender, NYC, financial services; Wexner, Ohio, retail
    Wurth, Stuttgart, industrialist; Wynn, Nevada, casinos.

    Note, that 9 out of the top 20 are in banking. That’s what I’m indicating. The contemporary art world trades stocks. Artworks are investment vehicles like oil, diamonds or pork bellies. There’s not the least interest in art that will last for generations. It’s a casino/ponzi model. Yes, it will crash. But who knows when. The whole system has to crash, basically. If you want the art to return to any semblance of having human values the capitalist system has to either crash or transform into something else. And I don’t see that happening. The opposite is occurring. The Communist states were a countervailing moderating force. When the Berlin Wall fell is when the insanity went into full gear. The primary reason the CIA and state department were bankrolling the New York School and that it had to have some sense of legitimate intellectual weight was to show the world that American Capitalism had culture as well as economic clout. It was to demonstrate the superiority of Capitalism to Communism. The Soviets had their soviet realism, which is another reason that American jettissoned its own realist artists, and showed what “free” artists could do. The New York School was all about freedom. The vast canvases with the artist liberated to create his own individual visions.

  6. trueoutsider says:

    So what we have now, as far as I can determine is that the winner take all economic model will insure that the Frank Stellas and all other blue chip artists will continue strong along with the new entries. The small fry will collapse. Note that Thomas Kinkade has collapsed. The two galleries of his work in Albuquerque shuttered and I imagine he’s closing everywhere else. But so is Borders, Circuit City, Mervyns, etc etc.

    The middle class is over. The superwealthy will support the art they admire and feel enobled by and can milk for obscene returns on investment. Wall Street banks, pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, all record profits. And of course prisons populations, according to the recent issue of Fortune Magazine are up 40percent over just 10 years thanks to George Bush and Obama carrying out Republican policy, just as he’s carried out Republican war and domestic policy.

  7. trueoutsider says:

    Let me get back to the narrative though where we’re still back with Frank Stella, Frankenthaler, Washington Color School and their tie-dye creations, Minimalism, Pop, Photo Realism, op be bop a loo loo art.

    From Hobbs:

    The postwar American avant garde struggled heroically for several decades and then ended as a movement in the 1960s. In general, several interrelated developments within American culture and within the avant garde caused the death of the movement: the appropriation of the avant garde by Cold Warriors, the movement of intellectuals into the university and other institutions, the rise of consumerist culture and the transformation of art and ideas into commodities, and the avant gardistst’ loss of faith in the future [of art].

    The professorships for artists relieved artists of the necessity to struggle to survive by selling their work, but it also enabled a complacency and what invariably infects all academics, the loss of vitality and grappling with real life. We can see the an identical phenomena going back a century to look at the contrast between the French Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, who were forced up against real hardship to struggle with their visions, compared to the complacent and pampered French Academicians, ceremonially awarded and teaching their proven formulas and housed comfortably within the walls of Academia. Certainly they had to hone their skills and compete with each other to get their positions, but once ensconced they predictably atrophied. If one has seen one Bouguereau, one has seen all Bouguereaus.

    Compare the evolution of a Monet, a van Gogh, a Cezanne. The work of these artists travelled long roads of continual development. One can only imagine where van Gogh might have gone had his life not been cut so tragically short.

  8. trueoutsider says:

    Because there is almost nothing of interest to look at in neo Dada artists like Jasper Johns, the critical theory has to be in a kind of hyperstate and echo chamber. I regularly dismissed Johns work to all my fellow artists from the time I was an undergraduate until today as I’m doing on this blog. I’ve yet to hear a rejoinder from another artist eager to have credibility within the system say that Johns was overblown crap.

    The complete destruction of the American avant-garde exists in the authoritarian nature of the command structure. Just as Noam Chomsky points out about the discipline of the American liberal intellectual class, there is no overt censorship whatsoever. The members of the liberal intellectual community and the liberal art community use self-censorship. They’re so gutless that they all echo each other, clustering like little chickens and hens assuming that if they all repeat the mantra that Johns is great or America isn’t an aggressive rogue empire then it will be so, and they will be rewarded accordingly by the monied interests who profit from those two lies. Both have been shown to be completely false, firstly in launching the illegal war in Vietnam without Congress ever declaring war, and in all the subsequent wars that followed, culminating in the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which have insured America’s complete ruin, as surely as Afghanistan sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.

    Yet, nobody debates any of this. They don’t even mention it. Such is self-censorship. Warhol, the silk screener is a great painter. Johns, grissaille encaustics describing nothing–without recognizable drawing, paint handling, space, meaningful composition, light–all considered great masterpieces of Western painting. And not a single does anything more than consider me an envious crank if I mention the obvious.

    I’m hardly envious of Jasper Johns. I don’t pity him either. He’s fine with me. It’s not his fault that the financial world showered him with status and cash. If not him, somebody else would have stepped in. Wealth and flattery must be powerful aphrodisacs. Having neither I would know so I won’t judge those who have them. Far be it from me to say when the bevy of bikini waxed blondes showed up to massage me as I sipped my margarita knowing I could knock out a half dozen masterpieces over the weekend after my team of assistants got things stretched up would I be able to resist? As the massage worked deeper into my muscles I can only imagine how many great ideas would be liberated for me to follow up on once I’d slipped my Armani bathrobe back on.

    Back when America used to have painters, the ash can school depicted what was happening to the working people of America. But in 60s onward working people didn’t exist. Walking through a Whitney Biennial, one would have no idea what was going on anywhere in America in the lives of the working class. All that counts is the lives of the Rich and Famous. The whole point is to leave behind all that working class drab and squalor. If it means silk screening coca colas and Marilyn, photo realist paintings painted at the height of the Vietnam war depicting peaceful diners and citiescapes and horse competitions and suburban cars and pinball machines.

    There were a few token artists like Golub and Spero making work dealing with the reality of the war… but they almost stood as the exception that proved the rule. The same went on through the 80s. The nouveau riche investment bankers throwing cash at whatever glib art strategy — neo this and neo that–looked glamorous and promising. Intellectual New York of the 50s became the Sex and the City of Sarah Jessica Parker, who of course was the natural choice for Bravo TVs Next Art Star program, a celebration of the complete decadence that has taken over the gallery and museum worlds.

  9. trueoutsider says:

    And let me insert at this point and as a I reminder that this is not a condemnation of any individual artists. It’s a condemnation of the system dominated by the capital class as a whole. These are the larger dimensions. Within the margins I would insist that many artists work with complete integrity at their craft and with dedication to the spiritual ideals what would be demanded of any good or great artist. I met many of them when I lived in NYC. But they were a very small minority, at least in my estimation of what painting is and what artists do.

  10. trueoutsider says:

    The high gear in the death of American Art as a form of spiritual expression occurs when Reagan is entering office. Businessman William Blount declared in a 1980 BCA pamphlet that

    art and commerce….each require as much freedom as possible to survive and prosper… Are we [businesspeople] instruments of the federal government? No.,… we fight against it. So does the artist… [Freedom] is being persistently eroded everywhere by ill-advised and ill-conceived regulation, taxation, and other forms of government control…. So we are engagerd in an important work in furthering the arts….. [We] are helping to keep oopen those avenues of freedom which art and commerce both travel.

    So now we have businessmen out to depose the federal government. And the instruments of choice to help dissolve government and leave America the sole property of corporations is art that is largely filled with nihilistic and destructive values. Narcissism, cynicism, irony. Emotionally detached Duchampian end games.

  11. trueoutsider says:

    At I write, the ultra wealthy are doing fine. They’re the ones who determine what art is and will continue to do so in the near future. The major risk is that the whole system will collapse again as it threatened to do before the US taxpayers were taken to the cleaners, transferring all our wealth into the hands of the major banks.

    It’s extraordinary just how few people actually control what art is chosen to sit atop the culture of global capitalism. A single buyer can change the course of what is considered art, and has. And single buyers could crash artists careers just as easily.

    This is from Don Thompson’s $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark:

    A major market decline could be triggered simply by the personal whim of a little known, 68 year old New Yorker named Jose Mugrabi, a former magnate from Israel via Bogota, Colombia. Mugrabi started collecting Warhol a few months after the artist’s death in 1987 and by 2006 owned eight hundred Warhols, almost as many as the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, three times as many as any other private collector, and worth about $400 million at current market prices. The auction price level for Warhol has become a bellwether for the entire contemporary art market, what California dealer Richard Polsky calls the Down Industrial Average.

    Mr. Mugrabi and his two sons do their best to sustain Warhol prices, sometimes overpaying when they buy, and never selling below market. In 2007 they asked $475 million for fifteen Warhols, offered through Christies private treaty sales office to the new museums in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They were turned down.

    If Mugrabi or his sons David and Alberto were to run into financial problems or for any other reason to be seen as liquidating the collection in a market that sells two hundred Warhols a year, the Warhol market could certainly sink. The rest of the contemporary art market might follow it.


  12. trueoutsider says:

    Anybody confused about just who decides what is art hould read this piece from the NY Times published last year:

    • Steve says:

      Those high-stakes collectors deserve what they get, a warehouse full of sucker paintings. Their investment is money only, their eye for is for money, their motivation is for money. The Mugrabi men don’t really like art or care about it. They are anti-art. Good. Gives us something to paint against. Gives us leverage.

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