The Deep

This late Pollock has come in for some critical contempt over the years, not least because the title seems to confer on it a Melvillean sort of portentiousness, but without Melville’s humor. It has to be Melville because it has to be some sort of American sublime. Certainly it fits in with post-war literariness, with works like Motherwell’s Elegies, or Gottlieb’s symbolic bursts. It may also suffer in many viewer’s eyes when it’s somewhat vaginal

Jackson Pollock, The Deep 1953

Jackson Pollock, The Deep 1953

image (reminiscent of Fontana) is related to its dreary color and knowledge of Pollock’s depression at the time. Formally, for anyone conditioned by the great drip pictures, and even familiar with the black and whites, the torn white surface opening onto a deep space has to look cornball, even kitsch, and the sexual associations redouble the impression. But, as I discussed earlier, Reflection of the Big Dipper is an important turning point for Pollock, I think because it rationalizes the canvas on the floor as a collector of imagery that falls on it from above, from the sky, and it has a similar opening in the clouds. The Deep might have been a milestone of equal importance, if Pollock had lived. In a word, there are other depths in this picture, and the slashed surface was clearly necessary for him in some way we do not and likely cannot understand.

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Other Reliefs

Blog reader Kizi Spielmann Rose kindly sent me some shots of Stella’s recent work. He seems himself to respond to energy in art, and has taken up the relief painting method accordingly, with gusto, as evidenced in this image.
Some things that I see in his work that are also present in Stella are: using both the cut out positive forms and the resulting negatives, usually in different works; a diversity of forms and manners on the cut out panels; forms jumping between the levels. Since the panels are usually parallel and flat, the works have a resemblance to those of Arp, which goes to prove that Stella is not and cannot be the only reference for someone who works like this. The only problem I have is that the forms seem a little hard and linear—but to each their own. Meanwhile, I was particularly attracted to earlier works with overlapping shapes. I can’t tell if these are prints, digital pieces or paintings, but see a lot of potential in the method.

Image 40

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Starry Reflections

My theory about Pollock’s Reflection of the Big Dipper is that the title should be taken literally. It shows reflections of clouds, stars and tree branches in a puddle. I just saw the piece in person for the first time at the Stedelijk, and see no reason to abandon that interpretation. What has not been clear to me till now is that the ropes of thrown enamel went on last, over the titular reflection and oil painted first layer, so maybe they can’t be called tree branches only. After all, this piece is one of the crucial transitions toward the full blown drip works, so its meaning breaks. Most shocking is the color of the oil paint—purple, alizarin, orange, yellow-green, more grassy green—a real salad.

Jackson Pollock, Reflection of the Big Dipper 1947

Jackson Pollock, Reflection of the Big Dipper 1947

The skeins are far from random: note the splashy encircled nexus in the upper right, with the smaller hook/semi circle surrounding a patch of green (looks yellow in the reproduction) slightly below and to the left, above another splashy bit. See the large bent finger shape that occupies the left side and across the top. There are strong grid feelings given by strokes of oil paint along the left hand edge and parallel ones at the lower right (these don’t show up in the reproduction). The design of the skeins is kind of figurative, Miro-like. Floating free from the lower level but still responding to it. I love that kind of relationship between levels. And the blue opening into the night sky anticipates The Deep, which now seems sad and depressive, but still supported by this earlier work. Over all, quite a tightly organized piece, and it feels sprung, not scattered.

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Chaos Shimmering Through

In an old copy of the NYRB I just found an article about Alfred Brendel, who quotes the poet Novalis: “Chaos, in a work of art, should shimmer through the veil of order.” So now I can see where Ehrenzweig was coming from, and wonder why I am so attracted to musty old romantics. Probably because they were right. The most dramatic example is Walter Benjamin’s university thesis “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” which I think is a much more relevant read for any art student than the famous “Artwork” essay. He convinced me that Schlegel understood the condition of art today. A conventional approach to Pollock is to seek the order underneath the chaos. A more sustained look and a more subtle perception gives the opposite. Will prove it in the next post.

Jackson Pollock, Number 5 1948

Jackson Pollock, Number 5 1948

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John Bunker

Some collages by the British artist John Bunker are very good. I can’t help but think of Stella, as usual, but this piece is pretty compelling, and stands any comparison.

ram raider 14

John Bunker, Ram Raider 2014

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Bureaucratic Fantasy

Here’s a moment of high comedy from Chin P’ing Mei, an account of Taoist ritual:
“This lot consists of nine memorials…the one submitted at the time of the ninth recitation to the Ruler of the Most Exalted Crimson Empyrean, the Perfected Lord and Investigation Commissioner of the Nine Heavens. These nine memorials are accompanied by memoranda addressed to the four bureaus in charge of undeserved emolument, retribution, concealed injustice, and cumulative accomplishment, and thanking the said four bureaus for their attention.”
The Taoist pantheon appears to be a parody of Imperial bureaucracy. Does this have any relevance to Chinese art? It might. Certainly there is some large area of official culture that is completely bureaucratized. Amusing that the heavenly offices correspond exactly to the earthly crimes of the protagonist. We might find the same correspondence between art and life in any Chinese gallery.

The Jade Emperor, Bureaucrat-in-Chief

The Jade Emperor, Bureaucrat-in-Chief

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Abstract East and West

My blog readers wouldn’t necessarily know it, but I have made a pretty close study of Chinese art, historical and modern, and even written about it. There is a chapter in my book on that topic in fact. My question is always—why is the Chinese avant-garde so bad? And why are westerners so willing to accept it? I was just watching a video of a conversation at the Metropolitan Museum with Huang Yong-ping and Frank Stella. (I don’t recommend it, it’s very dull.) Huang goes on about how he believes that art today should be subversive, but his work is completely conventional and unoriginal, not to mention tediously literary. Stella wants to talk about the past—Caravaggio, Malevich, Paulus Potter and Chinese imperial portraits—yet continues to create. Not such an unusual contrast, but it’s very irritating to hear fatuous Huang get such a platform. He comes on without a clue and walks off oblivious, having learned nothing, and unable to do so. Probably in tight with the communists anyway. A billion people, and no artists. But the

The Yong Le Emperor

The Yong Le Emperor, a painting that Stella compares with a Yellow Quadrilateral by Malevich

real ones must be suppressed. Stella’s art historical ponderings are eccentric and unprofessional, but very interesting, at least to an artist; Huang just spouts clichés.

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Too Many Mediations

It’s very important to remember—as often as possible—that the current highly mediated context, in which artists learn their business and craft from books, schools, the internet, art magazines and any number of other mass outlets, is very new and very strange. Up until the second world war one could only learn about modern art from personal contact with the artists. Well, not entirely, but direct contact was the most important form of transmission. Direct contact with work in exhibitions equally so. Have things really changed? I think something of how the immediacy of experience can affect an individual or change them has been lost, and that has something to do with a loss of depth of response. Today we know everything, or think we do, so feel less in front of a work, and see less there. There are exceptional occasions of course, but the general run of experience is flat. But then how could it be any other way? We see too much art, all the time, when one moment with one work can be enough to change your life, meaning the direction of your career. What happens after that is up to you.


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Lately I’ve been enjoying Andrea Fraser’s writings, and I’m not sure that blog readers who follow me to Stella, Barré, Motherwell or Riley will also come along that way. The fact is that I am a believer in modern art as part of the enlightenment project, meaning the critique of myth. The artistic way to free the mind from myth is first of all to recognize that all thought is analogical, based on resemblances, correspondences, analogies and tropes, even mathematics, and therefore there is no truth that is not a metaphor. Myth is constitutional. Secondly an artist works behind the myth, and that may entail making up new ones, a kind of play. You can’t work with myth unless you know it as such.

Andrea Fraser, Little Frank and his carp 2001

Andrea Fraser, Little Frank and his carp 2001

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No Meaning

How does one answer the charge of nihilism? Just observe that nature is nihilist. And that meaning is myth.


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Andrea Fraser

I remember in Artforum a few years ago a piece on institutional critique by Andrea Fraser, and also remember being underwhelmed. To me it seemed conventional, a reiteration of familiar insights, without the enlightening shock of work by Buren, Asher or Haacke. Perhaps because the last few years I’ve been so involved with normative painting, I now find Fraser’s writings a lot more interesting. The truth is always welcome. But it’s still impossible to accept that the sorry manipulations of the collecting class are the final truth about painting. The truth for every artist is that life is always a failing effort against chaos—and society is mass delusion, however much it is the enabler for anything one wants to do. Fraser herself is not outside the struggle, as she well understands. She deserves her success because she worked for it very intelligently, and in the end she is just another artist. But if so, then the critique of the kind of subjectivity produced by art—artist and viewer—is not so compelling. The need to sell something in order to live is the final truth about art and society, and I don’t see how one can escape that through critique.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk 1989

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk 1989

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Lane Relyea describes the reconstitution of the art world around systems of communication, around networks, and he makes a strong case that the ruling paradigm today is information. The database and the project are the fundamental forms, and the idea of a self-integrated, autonomous individual creator apparently doesn’t have traction anymore. His arguments are convincing, and I’ll post some quotes another day, just to say that for someone who has spent a lifetime to become that kind of artist the book is a painful pleasure. But it hits the more deeply in that Relyea is not endorsing what he describes. Millennial enthusiasms are easy to dismiss, but Relyea is a realist, not a promoter. And his critical manner is pretty discreet—he presents without moralizing; a coolness fraught with implications that I recognize from some of the California  artists we both know, and whom I know he has influenced, and been influenced by.


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A New Artworld

On holiday I brought two books, precisely because of the excruciating contrast between them. The criticism of Patrick Heron is on a very high level, of both insight and rhetorical skill. It’s inspiring, and what more could you ask? It doesn’t inspire you write, but to make art, the only justification for criticism that I can understand. Lane Relyea’s recent book,

Your Everyday Art World, is also pretty great, not because it inspires, but because he tells it like it is, and one thing he is clear eyed about is the passing of people like Heron, a type definitively obsolete. The end of the authoritative, masterful critic is naturally consequent on the disappearance of the artist-genius, but even though he or she may be out of fashion, I wouldn’t bet that the artist-genius is really gone. Mere social changes in the constitution of the artworld cannot eliminate human capacities.

Patrick Heron, Blue and turquoise with yellow-green 1966

Patrick Heron, Blue and turquoise with yellow-green 1966

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Why Abstract?

In what lies the abstraction?

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto 1985

Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto 1985

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Late Picasso

I’ve been reading some of the writings of Patrick Heron, an artist who suffered somewhat from his extreme eloquence as a writer. He certainly has me beat, and I know what he was up against, because his writing didn’t help the reception of his work. Yet like me everything he had to say came from experience, not a theoretical bone in his body. I’m particularly struck by a piece on the late work of Picasso, the last ten years. This was the art that inspired me the most at the very beginning; I loved it, and really did not agree with the standard American take, which was that it was shamefully bad. There was a flurry of interest in the wake of “bad” painting and the neo-expressionism of the 80s, but there really is no connection between late Picasso and anything that’s happened since De Kooning’s hilarious portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia. There is an affinity there for sure. Anyway, Heron’s article is so compelling I would have to quote pages. He takes me back to the days when I thought a musketeer by Picasso was the best painting ever, and makes the

Pablo Picasso, Musketeer with cupid 1969

Pablo Picasso, Musketeer with cupid 1969, my favorite painting back in the day

necessary point that reproductions are just not adequate. When I eventually saw one in person it was in fact a big disappointment, but I kept faith, despite the evidence, and many years later was very happy to see some very good ones. One recently shown in Toronto was much much better than I ever thought from the photograph, attached below. It’s quality can be felt, but I don’t feel a need to explain it, not least because Heron has already done a good enough job. Among other things he shows me the value of Picasso’s extreme abbreviation of form, which I never really understood. And for an abstractionist flags the most important thing—his beautiful clear, strong, vivid, indestructible sense of reality.

Pablo Picasso, woman with a pillow 1969

Pablo Picasso, woman with a pillow 1969, the piece I found so striking in Toronto. It probably helps that it’s big—maybe six or seven feet high.

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A Real Change

Walter BenjaminRecently I’m rediscovering the absolute genius of Walter Benjamin, including reading some texts I had a hard time with years ago. In “The Task of the Translator” he confirms remarks made in an earlier post about how artworks change over time:
“Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process. The obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation. What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what what once current may someday sound quaint. To seek the essence of such changes, as well as the equally constant changes of meaning, in the subjectivity of posterity rather than in the very life of language and its works, would mean—even allowing for the crudest psychologism—to confuse the root cause of a thing with its essence. More pertinently, it would mean denying, by an impotence of thought, one of the most powerful and fruitful historical processes.”
To a common-sensical rationalist it might seem over subtle to distinguish between root cause and essence, and to a confirmed post-modernist the very notion of an essence is suspect, but to an artist Benjamin affirms what is evidently real but can’t be proven—changes in reception explain everything but the fact that the artwork has a life of its own.

Frank Stella, La penna di hu 1987–2009

Frank Stella, La penna di hu 1987–2009

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Italian Old Masters

Too much has been made of Stella’s interest in Caravaggio round the time of Working Space. It’s pretty hard to find anything in Caravaggio useful to abstract art, and in a way his very strongly felt space is a bit of a distraction, because what is most important about his work is not the space but the time, namely the way that he turned the slow process of panting into an instantaneous experience, one time and one place. He had many devices to make it happen, but the most important is simply that he worked quickly and directly. Still, each piece must have taken many days, so they are montages of different moments, and the skill is in melting them into one single thing—an impression of a moment captured. Kind of like a photograph. So I can see Caravaggio’s relevance to Jeff Wall, for instance, but to get from him to Stella, or any other abstractionist, requires a few mediations, and some deeper thinking about time. Following on an earlier post, the space is emergent, a function of the artist’s work in and with time, it’s not the fundamental thing. As it happens, Stella has a stronger interest in other artists, particularly Correggio.

Michelangelo Merisi da Carravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew c.1600

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew c.1600

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A recent article in the NYT by Stephen Marche makes the case for failure, although he’s talking about writers not artists. He mentions how business, particularly the Silicon Valley variety, has taken up Samuel Beckett’s phrase “fail better,” but with a complete reversal of meaning. “Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success…To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.”  That’s so funny. Of course it’s true but one might as well enjoy the descent, meaning the long water slide to the inevitable. Marche also quotes Ezra Pound, words I’ve heard before but had forgotten: “I found out after 70 years I was not a lunatic but a moron.” Hilarious. Of course we don’t have the whole conversation. It’s difficult enough to be anything at all, so he really should be happy.


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Greenberg had this to say about what he regarded as Pollock’s major achievement:

“It wasn’t the space. I think the shallow illusion of depth had Cubist antecedents, and of course there was Miró’s indeterminate space. When Bryan Robertson writes about a new kind of space he’s full of shit. It’s the all-overness that’s gotten into contemporary taste. It’s become what one demands of advanced painting. Jackson brought this to head more than anyone.”

About the space maybe so, maybe not; about contemporary taste absolutely right. And now those who care about art are looking for something else.


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Watching Landscape

Another one of Pollock’s remarks is a real eye opener for me, a lesson:

“I don’t look at the view, I watch it. The land is alive, tells you things when you let it.”

Very interesting, and inspiring.

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer 1947

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer 1947

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More Matter of Fact

Following on from the previous post, Andrea Fraser’s effort at desublimation is better yet. I think it transcends the obvious caption, “art as prostitution.” Again it’s totally objective, but it hits hard when we consider that it “really” happened. The effect of the real, if you would have it that way, is working well, which means it’s been reinvented in this piece. Apparently she made efforts to protect the identity of her client/collector, by ensuring his face is not clear in the video, but I don’t think he asked for that—they are her scruples. There’s a level of feeling in this piece that Koons never has. An artist not afraid to go all the way with her work is always going to access feeling. Fraser may be the critical conceptualist, and Koons the parodist of painting, but she makes him seem too much the idea artist. But then maybe Fraser’s piece seems realer to me because in it a woman is taking the initiative. In both this piece and Koons’ the partner is a cipher. Despite her extravert behavior as a stripper, and her political shenanigans in Italy, La Cicciolina has a strangely bland persona, at least as it appears to me—but then I don’t have any experience of her outside of Koons’s work. In both of these works the artist is fully in control, but then they are the ones who are taking the risk. It would be interesting to imagine a genuinely collaborative sex piece, or perhaps one in which there were two competing agendas.

Andrea Fraser, Untitled 2003

Andrea Fraser, Untitled 2003

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Matter of Fact

Continuing with one of my favorite topics—the erotics of art, especially abstraction, or one might call it art as sex and sex as art. If art is fundamentally erotic then to make art out of sex is redundant, but for some reason it is done, and I find that interesting. The phenomenon might have something to do with the decline of interest in traditional media, because that entails a kind of desublimation—what was always implicit becomes explicit. But I think it’s more than that—sex is really in the substance of painting and sculpture, it’s not just represented or alluded to, it’s really there. How did it get there? An interesting question that will take time to answer, or at least to speculate about. In any case, art can be as explicit as it wants and remain art, so Jeff Koons, since he is a real artist, must have been determined not to be out done by amateur pornography. The Made in Heaven series is really goofball, but good nevertheless. What’s disturbing is its corny staginess,

Jeff Koons, Wolfman 1991

Jeff Koons, Wolfman 1991

but that’s also why it works. Above all it’s objective and it objectifies not only sex but all the nonsense that accumulates around sex in our culture. In our world. It manages to be explicit and completely fake at the same time, through the magic of art, which saves both illusion and naivety in one gesture of completely objective knowingness. No mystery, only truth, but truth is a dream that still manages to be explicitly real. I think it’s a step past Carolee Schneeman’s great piece Fuses, although hate to say so. It would be nice to live in Schneeman’s world, but it might turn out to be Koons’s world in the end anyway. But I also wonder what is served by this particular narcissistic display, even as I remember Ehrenzweig and his compelling analysis of exactly that. The general artworld revulsion mentioned by Jerry Saltz seems defensive, because the work is very bold. Meanwhile, Koons seems to have mastered narcissistic display as a technique, at least that’s what one might think after reading Ingrid Sischy’s interview in Vanity Fair, with its incredible photos of Jeff Koons pumping iron in the nude, and sitting with his wife on their bed with their six children lined up like the famous string of puppies. Men themselves hardly believe in patriarchy anymore, and no male artist would take as a career goal to become a hero/father, and then flaunt success, and this takes us full circle to where we started three posts ago and Barry Schwabsky’s comments on Koons as a man who says yes. As unlikely as he may seem in the role…it is astonishing.

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The Factory

Continuing on with thoughts about Jeff Koons provoked by Barry Schwabsky’s recent review, I can understand why he was struck by the giant Play-Doh piece.

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014

It looks like an early Lynda Benglis, but Schwabsky is surely right to stress the ways

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

Lynda Benglis, Untitled (VW) 1970

in which Koons’ work is of this moment, how it speaks to the class of collectors who support it, and how it is very different from that of Warhol in precisely that way. I think the technique is also very contemporary, and allows it to speak to another aspect of the current economic catastrophe, namely the decline and uncertain rebirth of manufacturing in the developed world, one of the central dramas of our time. No industrial process can

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh 1994-2014 (detail)

meet the standards of modern art, but those standards are almost lost. The role of the hand might be somewhat understood, but that’s only a minor part of the whole thing. Koons’ studio does hand craft and hand finishing to give the impression of flawless machine construction without the presence of a hand—something we want to believe in, though it doesn’t actually exist. This piece, which apparently took twenty years, is a tour de force of aluminum casting—no, of finishing an aluminum cast. Even in a photograph the detail on, and in, the surface looks astonishing—and feels like something worth doing and worth having. Art has survived the loss of standards, and the centrality of labor, meaning the working of material, has survived the delusions of the information economy. Meanwhile, manufacturing today is all about small runs, “mass customization,” and niche markets. Koons is one limit case of a modern manufacturer in a mature developed economy, a maker of high quality goods in ultra small runs, sometimes maybe of one. The more I contemplate this piece, the more I find the widespread resentment and dislike of Koons, which goes along with his widespread acceptance, so unfair. Jerry Saltz, in his review, catches the visceral effect that Koons’ work can have. Isn’t a strong revulsion, together with undeniable importance, the modern marker of quality? Meanwhile, I have to admit that his work is more widely accepted and more widely reviled than Frank Stella’s. To the extent that success depends on others, I guess Koons is greater than Stella, much as I hate to contemplate that possibility. In any case, Koons’ first moment of greatness was the Made in Heaven series, which I will ponder in the next post.

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Uncritical and Affirmative

Barry Schwabsky has a surprisingly hard hitting piece in The Nation on the Koons retrospective, the more so as he affirms the general feeling, held by many artists for sure, myself included, that Koons is a significant figure. It’s hard to accuse any art of emptiness without sounding like an old fogey, but maybe sometimes it’s true. Schwabsky gets to the more important point, which is the artist’s refusal to be critical, and which now seems like one of the stronger positions of the 80s. Koons himself has skewed the discussion toward affirmation versus negativity, which is not exactly right, but still worth some time. The “critical” artist is also affirmative, just on behalf of a life that doesn’t exist, and this is in fact the weakness of that stance. Art can’t change the world, so “critical art” is a born failure, which it knows. The deeper question is whether art really matters as much to life as many other aspects, and the revulsion against formalism was based on a widespread feeling that it didn’t matter as much as justice or freedom or equality or sex or countless ordinary things. But then art is a minority taste, and despite the scale of the art world there are still very few who really care about it more than they do about all the many and silly things people get up to. Am I equating “art” with abstract formalism? Maybe, but not entirely. Artists used to fuss about aesthetic problems, like whether to put a certain color here or there, or what shape to make a painting—now Koons fusses interminably over the perfect polish on a stainless steel bunny, and that is an important change, maybe even a paradigmatic one. It’s the particular emptiness of a period in which everyone talks about art but very few are truly involved with it. Of course it’s the feel or style that matters, and today seriousness about art is tolerated, and deferred to in marketing talk, but it’s a little gauche and even embarrassing. You can never really be taken seriously as an artist if you are serious about art. How naive. After all, what really matters is something else, like money for example, and who can deny that? The problem with critical art is not that it is too negative, but that it has to be evaluated by external criteria. Even if you think the autonomy of art is a myth, that’s still a fatal weakness, because it’s a weakness right at the center, and Koons is the affirmative artist with nothing artistic to be affirmative about. But that’s too much to say. Criticism of that type assumes that we know what the work really is, but history has proven over and again that emptiness is a pleasant but temporary feeling. In fact that was also the mistake of the avant-garde. It thought it had art all figured out, but really knew little about it. Even about abstract formalism.

balloon dog

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No Need to Read

I just came across a book that collects all of Jackson Pollock’s sayings, at least as they have been recorded. Unlike some artists, he wrote very little. One remark caught my eye:

“You don’t got to read all the time to know books. I can read by sensing a book—I get what it’s saying. Saves time too.”

As it happens I understand exactly what he’s saying. I have many books I haven’t read, and can absorb their content just by leaving them on the shelf. It may help to see them once in a while, but opening them up is not always necessary. One faculty of an artist.

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm 1850

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm 1850

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Images Without Words

While in Vancouver for my recent show I took in Peter Culley’s excellent show at the Charles Scott Gallery. A giant montage of small to medium ink jet prints wrapped around three walls, thankfully without any explanatory wall text or captions. The shots were taken on his regular excursions to walk the dog, who features in many of the images, but since Peter is a poet the real work is in the arrangement, in the way that adjacent or distant images converse and dispute. I have done something similar, but since those days are over I can take genuine pleasure in the work just as a viewer. A great show and a real contribution to the ongoing history of photography in Vancouver.


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Criticizing the Critics

One thing I like about Alfredo Triff’s blog miami bourbaki, is that though he is very critical of the contemporary art scene, he also criticizes its critics. No simple minded moralism, but a genuine interest in art, two traits that seem to be incompatible.

YBAs in their salad days, including Hirst, Fiona Rae, Simon Patterson, Sarah Lucas

YBAs in their salad days, including Hirst, Fiona Rae, Simon Patterson, Sarah Lucas


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A Small Group

Speaking about coteries, a recent article in the NYT points out that there are world wide an estimated 200,000 or thereabouts of individuals with more than $30 million in assets, yet the total bidders at Christie’s spring 2014 auctions of contemporary art totaled a whopping 190. That’s one tenth of one percent of the potential market for even the most expensive art. All of which makes me wonder why all the fuss about high auction prices. Clearly this group of high bidders, who want to collect Francis Bacon and Richter and Peter Doig, are not only unrepresentative, and uninformed, but in the context of the entire global art world their decisions have no greater weight or significance than a random selection. Statistically that is the truth. Since I wrote this post, an article in Hyperallergic discussing the size of the private market relative to the auction market confirms the point. A small and unrepresentative pool of collectors indicates nothing, but that’s not to say that value in art can be determined by voting, or that however big, the private market is a better indicator. The number of qualified observers is maybe several hundred times greater than the number of bidders at Christie’s, and some significant amount larger than the number of all buyers, and they make their group mind decisions in the normal mysterious way, usually by gossiping about not much of anything. It seems there is a lot of scope to make an art world, but for some reason everyone is hypnotized by money. The same article says that “…the wealthiest art buyers are concentrating on a narrow range of low-risk blue-chip names.” But then that’s not true. That narrow strategy is high risk, since it doesn’t necessarily have wide support, even among the small group that really knows. History may bring a reversal, as it has many times before.


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By their taste you will know them

By chance Picasso bumps into Robert Delaunay, and he gives the password—“Cézanne.” Delaunay responds and now they are on the same wavelength, co-conspirators of art. But then Picasso offers the secret handshake—“the late bathers”—and Delaunay doesn’t get it. He prefers the landscapes. So Picasso politely says goodbye and goes to join his friend Braque at a corner table. Despite all the mediations of the art world—books and magazines, university education, over abundant theory, the internet—the same kinds of distinction should apply. Those who really know are always in a minority, and they recognize each other. Enthusiasms for one artist or another are just the visible signs of affinity, and very necessary. If you don’t love art and if you don’t get caught up in the work that strikes you then you’re in the wrong business anyway, and letting your enthusiasms show is a natural way to attract colleagues and allies. It might sound silly to say that “late Frank Stella” is the secret sign of advanced taste—but so it is. The incongruity is that we think of a true coterie as about five people, but all art is a mass phenomenon today.

Pablo Picasso, Three Women 1908-09

Pablo Picasso, Three Women 1908-09

Frank Stella, K56 (large version) 2-013

Frank Stella, K56 (large version) 2013

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Corporate Mind

A recent article about the “corporatization” of the arts strikes me as well-intentioned but naïve in a very precisely Canadian way. What has distinguished Canadian art for the last fifty years at least is a very pronounced bureaucratic mindset, that comes naturally with grants and the structures of peer review. Canadian artists are so used to thinking like bureaucrats that they see nothing wrong with that. I find it sickening. But you have to move around the world a bit, and get experience in different worlds, to see that bureaucracy is not an invention of governments but of business. The fact that one is paid by the taxpayers rather than directly by the market doesn’t give any freedom from the corporate mentality. At my last teaching job I saw that very clearly. My colleagues may have been outside the corporation but the corporation was definitely inside them. The only difference between the public and private sectors, at least as far as working conditions are reflected in the mentality of the worker, is that the connection between work done and reward given is not as clear—and that is very debilitating to the individual. Might as well be in business, it’s more honest.

Peer review

Peer review

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