Laugh, Clowns, Laugh (while denying reality)

This one goes out to Diane Keaton and her great service to bringing the hitherto neglected Clown paintings of the past to the attention of art lovers everywhere. She’s an  extraordinary talent and, as I’ve just learned not only a fine art connoisseur of distinguished tastes, but as her publisher Rizzoli tells us, in her latest book Houses she has “doubled down on her outsize reputation as a housing connoisseur.” Her range of aesthetic interests is breathtaking.

Between her groundbreaking work showcased in her coffeetable book Clowns, she and Bruce Nauman have pushed the understanding of the profound social meaning the clown in society and an archetypal symbol going back to Petronius and and further through Ancient Cultures  extending back to the Cave Drawings at Lascaux. And no, I have not forgotten Stephen King! First the artist, as unlike King and his clumsy writings about Clowns, Nauman leaves us unburdened by intelligible language so that we get to the essence of the concept “Clown.”

Other artists must be credited as well, as the Nauman clone Paul McArthy has added his own immense reflections and refinements of the subject. As well as those unwilling to take the plunge into the liveliness of video performance there are photographers like Cindy Sherman pushing total banality to levels seldom imagined anywhere outside the studios of professional  Hollywood costume designers.

First, Bruce, who can be considered the Dean of American Conceptual Art. Nauman is not just an early practitioner of Conceptual Art but an absolute master from his very first videos. Few minds in a field replete with some of the greatest thinkers that American Artists have produced since the founding of the first colony at Jamestown, VA. in 1607. Of course the failings of the artists of earlier centuries when American Artists works can be explained by the obvious fact that there were not yet American Art Critics able to explain why Conceptual Art is vastly superior to mere oil paintings.

Clown Torture (1987)  realizes the potent subtext buried in esoteric early efforts like Art Make-Up (1967). One can see the profound thinking and refinement of his youthful ideas that took place over two decades when viewing the two works one after to the other. I’d also recommend reading a at least half of the 50,000 pages of critical praise written about Nauman’s work by an array of art critics spanning the globe to see just how shatteringly subtle what takes place in the two videos are that to the uniformed ignoramuses wandering around Contemporary Art Museums will no doubt fail to appreciate on their own.

A link one to one of the best books ever written on Nauman by the renowned art connoisseurs doubling down on his outsize reputation,  Peter Plagens, follows the video so you can get an inkling of what I mean when I refer to the kind of profound subtleties an unenlightened public completely miss. And yes, you have to read all of it, or you’re not going to get it and therefore remain a clownish buffoon yourself when it comes to appreciating great American Artists.

As Sifkin notes, Plagens isn’t merely sycophantic gibberish out to shamelessly promote some no-talent lamebrain. He takes a fine critical scalpel that refuses the hagiographical account that middling intellects overwhelmed by artistic geniuses like Nauman often succumb to.

Note the felicitous handling of quotes, page references, and parenthetical phrases woven together to produce the requisite frisson that accompanies all Zen insight. The page notions and numerous quotes all in one paragraphs denote the writings of all serious scholars like Sifkin.

“Yet as Plagens argues, Nauman’s commitment to an almost romantic idea of the artist makes the stakes of his semantic deconstructions less clear-cut than the conventional postmodernist account of his oeuvre might suggest. For instance, Nauman described the work The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967)–which consists of the words of light spiraling in read and blue neon lights, and from which Plagens takes the name of his book–as “on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand,” one he “believed.” Nauman claimed that he made the work, in part, to “find out if you believe in it in the  first place…which doesn’t make a fake or anything.” In other words, the overt irrationality of Nauman’s art is pursued as much in the spirit of constructive explorations as critical negations. Taking on the aspects of a “dispassionate scientist” (136) Nauman is described by Plagens as an artist whose interrogative practice is different conventional avant-garde approaches rooted in the desire to break down the barrier between art and life or to destroy art altogether. Nauman asks: “What is an artist supposed to do?” (25) not to destroy the concept of art and with it the function of the artist, but rather to find ways to continue to create art and hone its purpose down to an essential core, perhaps a means of survival within a world increasingly skeptical of established boundaries.”

A “world increasingly skeptical of established boundaries,” (see line above) indeed! By breaking down old boundaries between art and life Nauman continually establishes entirely new boundaries and amazingly is able to once again break the old boundaries he set by establishing new boundaries even farther out and far more intriguing, not to mntion filled with fresh possibility, than the previous farther out and more intriguing work we’d become overly familiar with.

In my next Post in the continuing exploration of The Clown in Post-Post-Modernist Art Theory vis-a-vis Post-Modernist Art Theory I’ll take a look the range and iconological complexity of Cindy Sherman’s explorations of the clown, both reaping the profit (in both senses of the word) from and extending Mr.  Nauman’s earlier groundbreaking insights. Sherman is also looking way cooler and way more cool color. Just cooler in general as she was a lot younger and there was even more cocaine going around than when Nauman was working in the 60s if you can believe that. Well, it’s true. I was there when it happened, drawing and painting it all as it occurred in my own mind’s eye. But enough about me. Let’s get back to the real geniuses.

Ms. Sherman has clearly studied long and hard the paintings of Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko. But it’s Kenneth Noland’s superlative color sense when combined with concentric circles that Sherman evokes in masterpieces like the one below. Note, if you will, the subtle–and clearly sneering– reference to Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture. Here, Ms. Sherman is  implying by the extremely long and firm “erection” symbolized by the balloon dog’s tail, that her “cock” is symbolically bigger than that of Jeff Koon’s actual cock (on full display below below.) Those younger than 21 years of age please scroll no further down. I beg you. Your minds might be forever damaged if you do.


First Koons cool dog. Then his hot dog.

koons-dog jeff-pnsIs that Mr. Koon’s actual member and sacred seed sliding out of Ilona’s ecstatic mouth? What is real? What is fake? Is that a stand in still standing up while being pulled downward? Perhaps the “rod” is the possession of one of Andy Warhol’s aging male idols, as Koons frequently makes nodding winks to his indebtedness to the works of the greatest Master of American Art who ever lived, Andy Warhol faithfully acknowledged? It is rumored that the original title of this work was

Ilonas Lonely Lovesick Licking Indebted to the Master of Nose Picking. Guess who the master is. Then see below for answer. 

These are the kind of burning questions that Post-Modernists like Jeff Koons not only tackled head on but provided solutions to. Pun intended, if you can figure it out art dummies.  Also please note JK’s provocatively blasphemous art reference to Sacred Christian art. In this case Gian LorenzoBernini’s St. Teresa. Brilliant stuff, Mr. Koons! And in keeping with the well-rehearsed and magisterial theme of American Conceptual Art going back to its source in Duchamp’s moustached Mona Lisa of making invariably degrading references to Christianity.)



Above: Andy Warhol painting (1949). Note the incredible precision of the twenty year interval between the masterful piece painted by Warhol as a young man in 1949. And Bruce Nauman in 1969 pulling gauze from his mouth, showing exactly the same precocity as Warhol did during his own artistic training in American Art schools. The awesome and too cool for words Clown Torture appeared after a further 20 year gestation in 1989. We are only two years away from what we can expect to be the latest development of, as Agnes Martin called them,  Nauman’s “scintillating ideas.” Forty years of fully focussed and turbulent creative intelligence beginning with this early masterpiece will be unveiled before the awestruck art audience! There is hope, America! Never fear! While our politics and everything else are totally fucked (as I don’t have to tell you) you can rest assured that our great artists are completely unaffected by any of it. And even now still creating the best work of their entire illustrious careers.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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