While packing up my books I unearthed my wife’s weathered edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. When I was an undergraduate student Wolfe’s book was about the only writer describing what the New York School had developed into. Writers inside the art system would have rendered themselves unemployed or commercially unviable if they let out the kind of peep Wolfe did from his unthreatened perch in the literary world. The art world invariably attacks people who write about artists from outside the art world as completely ignorant, regardless of their stature.
In the last chapter of the book, Up the Fundamental Aperture, Wolfe does a tap dance on the head of the minimalists. The minimalists, of course, were simply extrapolating Greenberg’s commandment for flatness and object-likeness. An extrapolation that Greenberg protested vehemently, as he wasn’t benefitting from it and had lost control of his own Frankenstein monster (akin to the Republicans with their Tea Party).
Greenberg had backed the soak-into-the-canvas flatness of Olitski, Frankenthaler, Noland, Louis, et al…. but then the minimalists grabbed the football and headed for the goal post, Greenberg rendered completely irrelevant as a power broker overnight and fuming.
After dissecting the Puritanical flatness of the above painters Wolfe writes:
Enough? Hardly, said the Minimalists, who began to come into their own about 1965. Bourgeois connotations, they argued, still hung on to Modern art like a necktie. What about all those nice “lovelyo” colors used that the Hard Edgers and the Color Fielders used? They invited as many sentimental associations as painterly brushstrokes had. So Minimalists began using colors like Tool & Die Works red and Subway I-Beam green and Restaurant Exhaust-Fan Duct Lint gray that nobody could accuse of sentimentality. And how about all those fuzzy, swampy, misty edges that Color Fielders like Olitski and Frankenthaler went for? They invited you to llinger over a painting for all its emotional “evocations,” just like the worst junk of the old pre-Raphaelites. Henceforth a paint should be applied only in hard linear geometries, and you should get the whole painting at once, “fast” to use the going phrase. (No Loitering). Kenneth Noland, formerly of Morris Louis’s misty Washington School, was now considered the fastest painter in the business.
And how about the painting frame? Wasn’t New York full of artists who made a big thing about treating painting as an object–and then acted as if the frame wasn’t even there? So Frank Stella turned the canvas itself into a frame and hung it on the wall with nothing in the middle. That got rid of the frames, and the era of “shaped canvases” began.
Sure, but what about this nice sweet bourgeois idea of hanging up pictures in the first place…all in their nice orderly solid-burgher little rows?… So artists like Robert Hunter (ed: Who?) and Sol Lewitt began painting directly on the gallery walls or on walls outside the gallery window… with the faintest, most unsentimental geometric forms imaginable…
Faster and faster art theory flew now, in ever-tighteer and tighter and more dazzling turns. It was dizzying, so much so that both Greenberg and Rosenberg were shocked–epates. Greenberg accused the Minimalists of living only for the “far-out as an end in itself.” Their work as “too much of a feast of ideation.. something deduced instead of felt and discovered.” (Ed: Look who’s talking!) A little late to be saying that, Clement! Rosenberg tried to stop them by saying they really weren’t far-out at all–they were a fake avant-garde, a mere “DMZ vanguard,” a buffer between the real avant-garde (his boy de Kooning) and the mass media. Very subtle–and absolutely hopeless, Harold! Theory, with a head of its own now, spun on and chewed up the two old boys like breadsticks, like the Revolution devouring Robespierre and Danton–faster and faster–in ever-tighter and more dazzling turns–let’s see, we just got of the little rows of hung pictures, not to mention a couple of superannuated critics, and we’ve gotten rid of illusion, representational objects, the third dimension, pigment (or most of it), brushstrokes, and now frames and canvas–but what about the wall itself? What about the very idea of a work of art as something “on a wall” at all? How very pre-Modern! How can you treat the wall as something separate from the gallery, the room, the space in which it exists?
And the so artists like Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Ronald Bladen (Ed: Who?) and Michael Steiner (Ed: Who?) did huge …etc. to earthworks, arte povera, conceptual art, body art, masturbate under the platform art….
Thus we have a neat capsule of how painting itself was so ruthlessly and utterly destroyed as a deeply meaningful form of expression existing through untold centuries.
I’d add here that a bankrupt civilization produces a bankrupt culture.
For an example of a bankrupt civilization turn on your TV or pick up a newspaper. For an example of a bankrupt culture, pickup up an art magazine.
There isn’t the remotest standard that can be applied to what is now considered art. As a matter of fact this whole blogpost is a conceptual art project that I’m expecting to be curated into the Whitney Museum next season… whenever that is… if they still occur. Does anybody really give a rat’s ass what’s in them other than the people trying to place in the end of civilization sweepstakes?
What’s noticeable to me is how Wolfe’s description, which while drastically simplified, hits the nail on the head. I pick up an art magazine at random from 1975 and read a description of Martha Rosler’s piece Semiotics of the Kitchen: “I was concerned with something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’ and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food projection… blah blah blah.” Just what I’d read today. It’s as if these people’s brains are frozen in aspic. They speak a language that only they understand. Common mortals can’t perceive the depths of their insights.
You can still see the same kind of semi-retarded bullshit going on in every artspace in the world. Anything, but spend time in the studio alone trying to produce something meaningful. Those of us with that kind of antiquated notion are best left alone in our primitivism.
We’re going on 40 years of this tedious shit and all this from the tireless avant-garde heroically advancing civilization forward from the dismal lows of the Renaissance, Romanticism, Modernism, myriad other civilizations, all with their assorted passe banality, and into the Sunshine or Tracy Emin’s ass running around the streets of London .
The real art. The vital art. The profound and sublime art reaches us through Martha Rosler and “semiotics.” More like semi-idiocy. No, not semi-idiocy. Actual idiocy.