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—meaning invisible— 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 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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Late Barré

Late Barré is unexpectedly charming. This series is built on a grid with diagonals, with

Martin Barre. 90-91-126x126-C 1990-91

Martin Barré. 90-91-126×126-C 1990-91

certain sections filled in, most not. And the consequent forms are carefully placed to avoid obvious lining up of the edges. A sophisticated deployment of absence. Yet there is also a kind of comic theatre taking place as green shapes move in from stage right and yellow

Martin Barre, 90-91-126x126-B  1990-91

Martin Barré, 90-91-126×126-B 1990-91

from stage left, a square dance of frowning little figures. Thing is, one has to see the whole series to see the dance, to get the shock as they move around and change places. I love that kind of game with the series, that makes it a single work in many parts.

Martin Barre, 90-91-126x126-A 1990-91

Martin Barré, 90-91-126×126-A 1990-91

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Appearance and Desire

Nineteenth century artists like Cézanne and Degas believed that if they channeled sexual energy into their work they would get better results. Matisse had the same view. Models should be attractive, but the feelings they aroused had to be transformed into art—to have sex with the model would waste everything. The idea was to make pictures, not fool around with the models, so the popular view (also the uncritical feminist view), that the male artist’s studio was a kind of bordello, is completely wrong. The strength of a male artist lay in his personal restraint, which enabled untamed invention in the work. Interesting that the viewer who misinterprets the sexual content of modern pictures also misses their very real eroticism, which is found in their distortions. Of course art entails indulgence of every impulse, but the strongest drive is to make a work, so some choices have to be made, amounting to the management of desire. This paradox deserves further thought, but for now just to observe that experience rarely matches the ideal. Degas could well have been a virgin all his life, but if so I don’t think it helped his art. His drawings are full of sex, expressed through sensitivity to curve, proportion and shape. The beauty of the line is identified with the beauty of the body, and that’s why his pictures are a tad conventional; that’s why he admired the work of Bougereau and why his work is almost as unsatisfying in the end. But when he puts the model in poses that in those days

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

Edgar Degas, Morning Bath 1887-90

were considered undignified and even degrading, such as washing her back or climbing into a tub, he is pushing toward a more real sexuality, less trapped by appearances. It took Cézanne to go the distance, and he was a family man—his sexual restraint doesn’t feel like repression. And the works vibrate with energy. The waves that order their brushstrokes must have some sexual origins at least, even if they are finally much more than that. Sex as the creative energy of the universe is blocked in some way by appearances, but of course art is entirely a matter of appearances, so Cézanne’s achievement is the more astounding, and his horrific women are still a challenge. For any artist with a normally refined appreciation for elegant form and feminine beauty, it’s difficult to see the sexiness of Cézanne’s Bathers—I have to admit that it’s not clear to me, at least in the only one I’ve

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

seen, yet I know it must be there. Picasso certainly saw it, Leger and Picabia too. Meanwhile, Degas made monoprints of women in brothels, and those ladies were definitely not pin-ups. He must have been in agony. Or maybe he gave in to temptation once in a while. Of unfulfillment, frustration, suffering and failure is great art made.

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

Edgar Degas, Brothel monoprint 1878-80

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Planar Spaces

From Susskind’s book comes another important formulation, also mentioned in my articles of a few years ago, now revisited: “The maximum amount of information that can be stuffed into a region of space is equal to the area of the region, not the volume.” I think this should be interesting for the sculptors to contemplate—it confirms the optical or planar type of modern sculpture. But for painting it’s also relevant, since it appears that volumes are not so much illusions of the plane as constituent of it. Or vice versa—there are no volumes without planes, or surfaces at least. If we equate the concept of information as used in science with meaning in art, then it is truly futile to fight the planar approach.

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

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Caminero and Ai

The tale of the broken vase has come to an end, and in an August 14th. article in the NYT we can read “Mr. Caminero’s lawyer…said: ‘My client has learned what is appropriate behavior for an artist to participate in.’” Remember that, blog readers, and watch your step. Sad but also funny, meaning I can’t help but laugh but also realize that for all the apparent liberalism and tolerance and all-too-knowingness of our society with respect to art, it still hates human freedom. I’m not laughing at Caminero. He seems a tad naive but is learning the way that every artist must, by doing. Mimicry breaking out on all sides. Interesting that the “value” of the so-called Han Dynasty pot now comes in at $10,000, a nominal sum for an artwork.


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Earlier remarks about the invisible greater part of an artwork used only classical, canonical paintings for examples. Actually, the point applies to abstraction more than anything, and the drive to eliminate the superfluous, which in some cases takes the form of works that are ostentatiously thing-like, and apparently strictly factual, only emphasizes the point. I could say that there is more invisible material in minimalism than in any other art, though to prove it seems like a tedious effort. It’s more fun to talk about information loss in Pollock, as I did in a couple of articles about science and art. The key is that the invisible part is also present and can be recognized, or “seen.” But if it’s invisible how can that be so? The kind of paradox I love.

Jackson Pollock, Summertime 1948

Jackson Pollock, Summertime 1948

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Reading a book by Leonard Susskind, which gives me further perspective on the topic of abstraction and information loss—something I’ve written about but never fully understood. Or rather, I have trouble following the scientists when they say that nature is information. The suspicion won’t leave that they are using a metaphor from the computer industry. Anyway, Susskind says “entropy is hidden information.” What he means is that if heat is added to a gas the particles vibrate faster, so it’s harder to specify their location; all the information needed to describe the substance is not available. It must be present, but it’s not easily available. “Hidden” information might work better than “lost” information, and it connects exactly with the allegorical dimension of abstract art, namely its “meaning.” Susskind goes on: “Entropy always increases.” An artist has to acknowledge that meaning is always harder to specify, and the inability to pin it down has to be accepted as constitutional for abstraction, and brought into the method, whatever that is. But an artwork, because it is a single thing, and all its parts are specifically what they are, and all its forms are just so, by definition has zero entropy. Somehow—and this is the history of modern art—a work sheds information as it condenses down into one single specific thing, so it maintains its actual zero entropy while the entropy of meaning grows. Hey, just thinking out loud.

A Generalized Plot of Entropy versus Temperature for a Single Substance

A generalized plot of entropy versus temperature for a single substance. A work of art is at the bottom left corner of the diagram, its meaning at the top right.

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The Club

Following from the previous post, an interesting comment from Clement Greenberg:

“This gets chewed over again and again, the talk about the heroic generation. I’m sick and tired of talking about it. But I’m not sick and tired of emphasizing what washouts most of these people were as human beings. And they were washouts. At the Cedar Bar there were people that I liked, but the collectivity was awful and squalid.

(Question) Did you feel this way about the Club as well?

Yes. Again it was squalid, maybe the word sordid is better. Doomed artists. Whenever artists herd apparently they’re doomed.”


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From William Tucker’s great book I learn that by the age of seventeen Rodin had been rejected three times by the Beaux-Arts. He spent twenty years earning a living as a technician/assistant working for academic sculptors, while developing his ideas on his days off. By the time Brancusi came along the social and professional situation had changed a lot, but he was likewise primarily a maker and craftsman, outside the system. Tucker has great sympathy for these difficult wanderings around the perimeter of the art world, especially with Gonzalez, whose travails he analyzes in some depth. There is strength to be won in isolation. 

Julio Gonzalez, Head 1933-34

Julio Gonzalez, Head 1933-34

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Collective Solipsism

A popular and often heard claim is that an individual creates their own reality. I think it’s more like the mass media are too much present in everyone’s mind. There is no such thing as “virtual” reality—there is such a thing as mass delusion.

Oculus VR headset

Oculus VR headset

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No Pop

It’s obvious that the realm of the mass media has increased hugely over the last sixty years, and continues to grow. It’s also clear that more people spend more of their valuable time paying attention to it. Those developments are a legitimate object of study, but I see hardly anyone—maybe no one—going about it the right way. A genuine materialist would aim for an objective measurement of how the human brain is occupied, and that could only be done from a position outside. The idea put over by the Pop artists, that the content of the mass media is a dominating aspect of our reality today, is clearly wrong. The real thing is the way that the consciousness of individual human beings is occupied by the content of the mass media, not those images or slogans themselves. Hope the point is coming across. One of the strongest features of abstract art is its refusal to play around with pop culture, and the so-called impurities of so-called post-modernism are really a kind of failure. They offer no perspective on the world and do nothing for abstraction.

Albert Oehlen, Loa 2007

Albert Oehlen, Loa 2007

If an artist like Oehlen, for example, instead of presenting his own demonic possession, would present it and step back, he would make something more abstract. But this is a debatable point—some would say that’s exactly what he does. I think something is lost in the layering of perspectives, because they all collapse down to the same position in the end. In this kind of work, the notion of critique becomes a tiresome alibi, because it can’t survive the multi-perspectival exercise anyway.

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Scientific or Social Origins

I have finally got around to Lee Smolin’s new book, about time. As sympathetic as I am to his ideas, I can’t help but look toward the blind spots. Here’s one quote: “In the past, great conceptual steps in physical science have been echoed in social sciences. Newton’s idea of absolute time and space is said to have greatly influenced the political theory of his contemporary John Locke. The notion that positions of particles were defined with respect not to each other but to absolute space was mirrored in the notion of rights defined for each citizen with respect to an unchanging absolute background of the principles of justice.” Someone who advocates the moment of emergence, the unexpected and the new should be cautious about attributing causes. I wonder why he assumes that a new world view necessarily derives from science. It could be exactly the other way around—that Newton may not have even imagined time and space as background without prior social changes that disposed him to think that way. The problem lies in an academic orientation. Since when do the social sciences have any historical importance? Their view is always retrospective and their value is merely descriptive at best. If we want a real change of paradigms don’t look for it in the university. Better is the insight of Robert Musil, already quoted on this blog: “The train of events is a train unrolling its rails ahead of itself. The river of time is a river sweeping its banks along with it. The traveler moves about on a solid floor between solid walls, but the floor and the walls are being moved along too, imperceptibly and yet in a very lively fashion, by the movements that his fellow travelers make.” I love this quote, and it has inspired some of my own work.

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Everything moves together, and neither science nor art nor even sociology have priority. If we wanted to derive a principle here it would be something like The German Ideology, despite over 100 years of criticism still the most shocking and enlightening text of our time. But all this makes me sensitive to another of Smolin’s metaphors. And yes they are metaphors. In the quote above science is a metaphor, in other words a substitute for more fundamental social facts. In this quote we can hear the ideology of Silicon Valley and the desperation of the entrepreneurial culture: “Both democratic governance and the workings of the scientific community have evolved to manage several basic facts about human beings. We’re smart but we’re flawed in characteristic ways. We’re able to study our situation in nature over a single lifetime and accumulate knowledge over many lifetimes. But we have also evolved a capacity for thinking and acting at the snap of a twig. This means we often make mistakes and fool ourselves. To combat our propensity for error, we have evolved societies that embrace the contradiction between the conservative and the rebel in the service of future generations.” Conservative and rebel are nothing if not fictions, metaphors in fact for the processes of technological so-called “innovation.” Since Lee’s book makes major claims, and welcome ones, it’s disappointing to see this kind of lapse into a weak rhetoric that comes out of business. And the idea that social organization can compensate for human blindness, when it is itself a product of that same limitation, is also distressing. But then these quotes come from the final chapter of the book, in which he perhaps gets a little off his turf.

Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin

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Emergent Space

Lee Smolin’s latest book, Time Reborn, is an argument in favor of the open-ended future. We may not have known it was endangered, but apparently one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that time becomes objectified as one of the dimensions of space, something Einstein himself was unhappy with. Relativity spatializes time. Julian Barbour has been discussed on this blog, and he is the strongest advocate of the notion that the apparent passage of time is an illusion, and something of a mentor to Smolin. I’m completely in sympathy with Lee’s work on this topic, but right now the most interesting thing about it is that he holds that space is an emergent property, that space is, in a sense, the illusion. Time is fundamental, space is secondary. This comes at exactly the right time(!) to confirm thoughts that I’m not able to express clearly, though I have been making a stab at it on abstract critical. Pictorial space has to be invented, but sometimes it’s just too familiar, meaning that the faculty of invention is not engaged. Two pieces may have the same character of space but one is dead and the other feels alive. One space is invented, the other is conventional, though they are the same kind of space, maybe even made the same way. Allowing for the vagaries of mood and attention, there is a qualitative difference that can’t be theorized except in this way. Theoretically it’s easy to dismiss this idea, and quickly jump to the logical conclusion that all art is a hamster wheel. But our minds are too quick to measure, compare and understand. Consider that you might have brushed your teeth 10,000 times, that you may have walked down the same street times too numerous to count, that human beings repeat the same nonsense over and over, yet is it not possible that a moment, however much it may be filled with the same old stuff, feels good, alive, necessary, even perfect? Isn’t that what gets us out of bed? We want the unique time and space of a work to be special, but that feeling can only emerge from the familiar background, however you want to draw its outline.

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

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Tucker’s Stance

William Tucker’s favorite sculptors, according to his book, are Brancusi, Matisse and Degas. If one looks at his own work with this in mind, it’s clear that he is not rooted in construction, but in ideas of organic form, and surface as in some way both origin and consequence of what it covers. He wants to reconcile surface and mass, a contradictory but therefore interesting project. The problem as I see it is that his pieces inevitably feel hollow. Cubist construction has negated mass, and I mean really made it impossible to believe in solid things.

William Tucker, Day 2012

William Tucker, Day 2012

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Object Matter

From William Tucker’s book The Language of Sculpture, comes these further words on cubist construction:

Pablo Picasso, Construction with fringe 1914

Pablo Picasso, Construction with fringe 1914

“Apart from their richness and power as individual pieces, all these wooden constructions demonstrate the object-nature of modern sculpture. They take objects, still-life, as their subject-matter; they are constructed of the same material and in the same way as made objects in the world; and they have a completeness, an object-quality in themselves, an autonomy of structure and internal relations, that gives them an independence of any model in reality.”
One reason this stands out for me is that it reminds me of the obsession with so-called “literalism” among the steel sculptors on abstract critical, a kind of Friedian time warp. I’m always bemused by it. The avant-garde strategy is to test the status of the artwork by pushing it as close as possible toward the ordinary thing, but history has shown that the illusion of art is indestructible. Since it can never be absolute, the thingness of art is only compelling as something to strive toward; since it is compelling in that way, it’s really stupidly conservative to argue against it. Nothing can be accomplished by such a stance. But Tucker says something very interesting—that autonomy, the very essence of art, is also object-quality. Meditation on this elegant formulation should help to dispel confusion about the literal and the artistic, or at least turn attention away from such unproductive arguments. The book was published in 1974, the heyday of minimalism, yet it is only concerned with early modernist sculpture. In its context it seems oddly old-fashioned and art historical. The writings of Morris, Judd, Andre and Smithson are all in the history books, and define the discourse of that time, but though Tucker’s book is completely out of step with all that, it is nevertheless a valid intervention. For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to the object. Tucker was aware of the zeitgeist, but his dialogue with it was less direct, a little more subtle, because his own work had to do with surface and volume, and he evidently felt that was still a legitimate direction. And why not?


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Planar Construction

William Tucker’s book contains the following very apposite remarks on cubist construction:
“Painting gives way to physical making, and survives only to key or differentiate existing parts. The picture surface has been replaced by the frontal planes of real volumes, although the orientation of the whole is still pictorial—that is forward to the spectator, back to the wall—and the illusion of deeper volume, of implied perspective, of modeled, rounded surfaces, is still consequently present.” (emphasis added)
This insight matches very well with Margit Rowell’s show and catalog The Planar Dimension, discussed earlier on this site. Objects that are still pictorial, that’s the interesting thing, not the idea of an object neither painting nor sculpture. There’s a future for abstraction there, and for painting.

Pablo Picasso, Musical Instruments 1913

Pablo Picasso, Musical Instruments 1914

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Feelings for and of the World

Following from the previous post, landscapes are beautiful to the extent that our feelings live there, and I love landscape and landscape art. But the art that is willing to die is closer to the body—not just content to look at the world, it wants to feel it from the inside. The eroticism of landscape art is diffuse, it’s an atmospheric feeling, and that’s why it’s so far sublimated in the artists that Riley mentions. In my kind of art the erotic is always present, it has to be—it comes along with death, which simply means evolutionary change.


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The Creator Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley describes her own position in these terms:
“For the last fifty years, it has been my belief that as a modern artist you should make a contribution to the art of your time, if only a small one. When I was young, the situation was very different. Abstract painting hung like a mirage in the desert. The door had been pushed open by a small number of visionary artists—mainly Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodchenko. Although traveling by different routes, each had arrived at what was virtually a common core. Having discarded the figure and nature, what remained? Colour as colour itself, those simple shapes and forms that geometry and writing provided, and the material facts.”
An heroic enterprise, to create out of nothing, or almost nothing. Riley has certainly acquitted herself well in this effort. I admire the position, but believe that it is left over from idealism, and religion. The artists she mentions may have been atheists, but the desire to make a mark on the universe in the act of decoupling from nature is still, on a deep level, a protest against natural death. The idea that the human being has an essence that is unconditioned and independent of natural processes is not necessarily wrong, but I strongly doubt that such a thing can survive the death of the body. In the event, Riley’s work converges with nature, or mimics it, or is a parallel nature. Kandinsky and Mondrian developed out of landscape, and never really escaped it. Kandinsky ended up with a macro/microcosm, a view through a telescope or microscope, and Mondrian ended up with the human landscape of architecture and design. Riley also is a landscapist, rendering light and air. But the relative success or failure of the project is not as important as what it stands for, namely human freedom from nature and natural death, ultimately a delusion, but a grand one. I love the work and respect the effort, but I think it’s a fallacy. My work is not to represent nature but to be it, and death is built into the method.

Bridget Riley, Nataraja 1993

Bridget Riley, Nataraja 1993

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Human beings are just an ordinary part of the biosphere, and the biosphere is our limit. We will never be anything other than animals and all cosmic dreams are just that – dreams. Space flight is bound to fail because we can’t actually live away from the rest of the biosphere. Cosmic fantasies, religions and all that are creations of human culture, of the interior—the psychological and the social interior. Dark, heavy, enveloping delusions. My recipe for art is to spend more time outside. There’s more going on.

Paul Cezanne, Bridge of Maincy

Paul Cezanne,  Bridge of Maincy 1879-80

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A Man of Sensibility and Taste

The fact is, there is no avoiding Mr. Simchowitz, however much I disagree with his choices. He knows how to talk. This is what he says about Oscar Murillo: “…with Oscar, there is no collusion—his collectors are an evenly distributed group of people who love the work, and who collect it on their own accord all over the world. That’s interesting. That’s real culture, that’s real distribution, that’s a real market.” The claim is strong, and convincing to any collector, but it can’t be proven. But he has hit on exactly the dilemma of taste, though dilemma might not be the exact word—maybe the capacity of taste or something like that. When educated, knowledgeable people all over the world come to the same decision at the same time then we must have reached the forward edge of contemporary art, the real next thing that answers to the need no one exactly knew they had. But at the same time, if everyone recognizes it that must be because it resembles what everyone already knows and has accepted. There are two sides to the moment, one facing forward and one facing back, and no way to decide which is operative in any case. But one can feel it. Simchowitz says “A lot of it is instinct, and it’s difficult to explain, to be honest with you. I can just feel it. When I saw Oscar Murillo’s work it was immediate. No one else saw it at the beginning. I can’t explain it… I can just see it. I can feel it.” That’s exactly what I would say, so how can Simchowitz be so wrong? Actually, he’s right, but not right enough—right enough for the current market, but not quite up to speed with art itself. That would explain why we get different results with the same method. Still, how can you criticize someone who so obviously enjoys what he does? He does no harm. And he is right that low primary market prices help drive the secondary market, a useful insight.

Stefan Simchowitz

Stefan Simchowitz

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My favorite blog writer, Alfredo Triff, has recently picked up on the article about Stefan Simchowitz that was going around a while ago. He makes his usual great analysis. But what strikes me is that just because a lot of celebrities listen to Simchowitz (a fact of which he brags) doesn’t mean he’s right. He tries to justify himself as part of a new Internet-centered paradigm, but to me it looks like ignorance leading ignorance. What qualifies him? I know much better which art counts, and in addition can exercise the artist’s Right of Self-Election, which extends to evaluation of other art. But then how can my position ever be proven? Will history come through with the right measures and corrections? And who is history? Internet or not, Simchowitz and everyone like him will have to deal with academic art historians, the final line of evaluation. Sadly, they are a sorry bunch. But coming down from those elevated levels of the market we find certain concrete problems in daily practice, I think well laid out by Jerry Saltz in a recent article. The looking-the-sameness of so much recent abstraction is a practical studio problem, which we all have to deal with, but Saltz is no better than any other American critic at seeing that it lies in the standard historical narrative. He criticizes artists for lack of originality, and conformism to the discourse of art school, but doesn’t take any exception to the all-over composition for example, or throw Gerhard Richter into the crowd, where he belongs. To say that contemporary abstraction needs to be different from the past accomplishes nothing—different in what way? Different from what? It’s up to artists to make those decisions, and up to gallerists and consultants and critics to listen to them.

Lucien Smith, A Simple Twist of Fate 6 2012

Lucien Smith, A Simple Twist of Fate 6 2012

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Democracy of Taste

Contrary to what it might seem from the previous post, I am not critical of Oscar Murillo. He’s an ordinary artist, fighting the same struggles as all of us and facing the same temptations—above all the temptation to just accept a work that looks like ordinary art, to compromise with himself. He’s not good enough to be really bad, like Rothko or Richter, and he doesn’t give a shock to anyone’s taste or sensibility, so he’s not bad enough to be really good. He’s easy for any artist to identify with, in fact, because most of us are in exactly the same place, most of the time. But he brings to mind certain self-evident truths about artist’s rights—such as the inalienable Right of Self-Election. The self-elected artists recognize each other, and other parties will not necessarily accept their status, and nor should they. As far as I can see neither David Zwirner nor the Rubells have the qualifications to decide which artists matter. I do.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

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Illustration and Abstraction

wildsmith1I’ve been enjoying the work of the great British illustrator Brian Wildsmith. He started in the early sixties and it’s not hard to see some influence from Alan Davie, as well as from those perennial undergraduate favorites Klimt and Hundertwasser. Arbitrary gestures, like the dotted line moving through the flowers; abrupt jumps between different orders of representation such as the hare’s forcefully drawn schematic eye, which doesn’t go with the naturalism of his fur; the obviously non-naturalistic red background—all moments of

wildsmith3abstraction that make a more interesting picture. There’s something to see and think about if one extracts parts from the book, as I’m doing here, and so for a moment this picture looks interesting—a generic over-all “field” of marks that could be the kind of clean,

wildsmith2 conventional, well made and tasteful but completely boring abstraction that one can find everywhere on the lower level of the market, in furniture showrooms and hotel rooms, but now augmented with words that gain suggestiveness removed from the story. From here we can forecast a popularization and normalization of conceptual art, which will turn up in poster shops soon, namely an “abstract” image with a few words attached to make an automatic poetry. But wait! It already exists….Oscar Murillo!

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The Invisible Greater Part

In ordinary life one doesn’t have to see or know exactly how things relate in order to do something useful with them. For one obvious example, a cook doesn’t have to understand what is going on chemically in the oven to bake a cake; for another, in sex the interaction of pheromones with hormones doesn’t have to observed and measured to get a good result. Likewise in art the visible relations between forms are only an opportunity to feel others present but not necessarily visible. Poussin and Cézanne prove the point. My lodestars. Close your eyes and feel your way.

Paul Cezanne, Mt. St. Victorie, 1882-85

Paul Cezanne, Mt. St. Victorie, 1882-85

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Parts and Wholes Again (As Always)

I’m going to include an unusually long quotation in this post, from scientist and philosopher Abner Shimony.

“…collective behavior in macro physical systems and in biological cells can often be explained in great detail in terms of the properties and interactions of the parts…An ontology in which individual human beings have a fundamental mode of existence, while societies, institutions, cultures, etc. have only a derivative existence [emphasis added] should suffice for the social sciences. The reasonableness of this claim is reinforced by reflecting on the actual and potential richness of the psychological states of individual human beings: an entire culture, with its language, literature, rituals, etc. can be internalized within one human psyche. That human beings are biologically social animals does not imply that the society has a more fundamental ontological status than individual human beings, or even an independent status. DNA is a ‘social molecule,’ functioning as a template for the construction of RNA, which in turn guides the construction of the proteins needed in the life of the cell; but the social nature of DNA does not endow the cell with a holistic ontological status. At least, there is no need to do so for the purposes of understanding causal sequences in the cell. The more precisely causal sequences are understood in the social sciences, I believe, the more clearly will the ontological primacy of individual human beings be evident.”

As an admirer of Adorno I can’t help but admit that thoughts like these would make him roll over in his grave, at least to the extent that they justify atomized American life, which the social sciences do, especially when they bear down on immediate experience – what Shimony calls particular “causal sequences.” But Shimony is not a positivist. Take Adorno’s formula “only the whole is true, but the whole is false” as the true critical attitude, and Shimony makes the cut. This will be one of the themes of my book, that a lot of contemporary art mistakenly takes social abstractions for realities, or just cynically plays by that assumption as a way of smoothing its path through the world.

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Old Matisse a Master

My reservations about T.J.Clark have been expressed on this blog, but I still like to read him, because he’s a rare art historian who actually gets it, who can feel art from the inside, not just shuffle it between theoretical boxes. Actually it’s the necessity to constantly move in and out, from the theoretical frame to the art experience, with the historical data making other complications on the way, that he suffers as the conditions of his occupation. I am under no obligation to turn those twists myself, and glad of it. Anyway, his recent review of Matisse’s cut-outs in the LRB is pretty good. But then the conclusion that it’s all about salvaging art while living its destruction is kind of anti-climactic; it’s hardly news after all. But his reading of this piece is good enough to prove that the old trope still works.

Henri Matisse, Decorative Composition with Masks 1953

Henri Matisse, Large Decoration with Masks 1953

At least it gets you where it feels.

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A Sensibility

I’m acquiring more affection for the work of Martin Barré, especially the later ones. From 1986, this piece has the feel of its moment – it verges on 80s parodic modernism, like a

Martin Barré, 86-87-120x120-D 1986-87

Martin Barré, 86-87-120×120-D 1986-87

cartoon Mondrian, although I’m quite aware that Barré was grounded in something very different. His sensibility, that of a true artist, could hardly avoid responding to the changing atmosphere.

Martin Barre, 86-87-120x120-F  1986-87

Martin Barré, 86-87-120×120-F 1986-87

Posted in Conceptualism and Painting, Ethics of Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frankenthaler’s Forms


Helen Frankenthaler's studio circa 1987

Helen Frankenthaler’s studio circa 1987

Just picked up a catalog of Frankenthaler from the late eighties, a big stretch for my taste. Recently there were conflicting assessments of her work on abstract critical. Her admirers are very enthusiastic. Presumably the expressiveness of her works lies in their syntax – the way a smear over here relates to a line over there or a stain in the background. But if that’s the way to look at abstraction there’s a lot of scope to articulate those relations further. Imagine a continuum from indistinct forms in tight arrangements to very sharp and definite forms in loose and arbitrary configurations; abstract art can continue for a long time trying to find out how many places there are in between. Distinct forms in tight arrangements is too boring and academic; characterless and undefined forms in casual groups without obvious necessity is the conventional way, particularly in American art, and it’s not clear whether that is also the permanent avant-garde or just the infancy of abstraction. On the good side it’s a leap in the dark; on the bad side it leads to unfortunate questions of evaluation and meaning that have stuck us with conceptual art. It might also be too easy.

Helen Frankenthaler, Scarlatti 1987

Helen Frankenthaler, Scarlatti 1987

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