Vicissitudes of a work

This is a Jack Bush that hung for many years in the office of the director of an art college. It has picked up a few scratches, coffee stains, scuffs and nicks, pretty clearly visible in the photo. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. A work is made at a singular time and place, and the damage that it suffers on its journey through time might be precisely the way that the feelings of that moment are preserved in the work. The feeling is always one
of loss or pain, but it takes time for the scars to appear. Personally, I like the patina of age, because it can only be acquired out in the world—in the museum there are no more accidents. Great works will stand a lot of abuse. After all, whatever is essential in a person is not destroyed if they lose a bit of their body. But having said all that, it is true that color field paintings have weak defenses. In airports or other public spaces they often look worn and scuffed. They’re not made to be protected by frames or glass, and acrylic is tough paint, but the world is still hard on them.

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7 Responses to Vicissitudes of a work

  1. Shep Steiner says:

    I really like what you say about Bush’s painting and feel compelled to add more about the specificities of this particular painting, which is an example of Bush’s Sash paintings. Biographers and second generation American formalists (I mean formalists from the late 60s and 70s), who are the only critics who have bothered to look at Bush’s practice in the past, would never admit the kind of things you say, or what is at the crux of his Sash paintings. The example you show is a very somber colored Sash, which may contribute to some of the nostalgia of your response. As you know the Sash paintings come in a truly wide variety of color combinations and sometimes are very brightly colored indeed. The analytic of expression opened up by virtue of the comparative work that one can and must do in face of the series is part and parcel of any one Sash. In other words when we look at a specific Sash the series specific nature of the Sash should always be in the background of our minds, as well as the ways in which the Sash in question expands upon the extant expressive vocabulary. The deep background here of course is Greenberg’s notion of expression, which has come under repeated attack over the last decades, but which is exonerated in face of any one painting and the expressive effects it details over and above the expressive effects that the series as a whole details.

    Two other points about Bush’s work in general come up here as well. The first involves an aesthetic of ambiguity, which hinges on metonymic slippages of meaning that is important to all of the color field painters, and the second involves Bush’s particular history as part of the advertising industry in Toronto. I recall that Bush himself tells us that the Sash paintings originally came from seeing a dress on a mannequin in a store window—in New York if I remember correctly. This kind of reference is the bottom line for all the Sash paintings, but cannot be hypostatized as the final meaning of any one work. For instance the work you show may in fact be seen as part of the cinching effects of a Sash on a mannequin’s dress—I mean at the waist—but this work in particular also has the effects of perspectival depth. Illusionistically it looks like a narrow hallway, at least if we follow the dark green at the bottom inward. This reading complicates as soon as we hit the red and the green and red stripes, which flattens things out or makes us feel we have come up against a wall. It is a very moody set of associations that are raised here, and the experience reminds me of the claustrophobic effects one feels in some of Bruce Nauman’s narrow hallways. Anyway this is unique to this Sash, because other works in the series have a great many other metonymic associations bound up in them. For instance, Bush’s Black Velvet, 1963 is a far more overtly sexual work. In fact, it looks like a crotch shot, the characteristic cinch of all the Sashes assuming the shape of panties, and the side colors taking on the associations of inner thighs. Sexuality is a major motif in the artist’s work. In any case Black Velvet is quite a dirty picture compared to the Sash you show which comes off as more decorative, more reserved, even calculated in its striping and mirror like effects. Other Sash paintings vary greatly in their anthropomorphic effects: they can look like neckties, martini glasses, part of an old Chevrolet, or a dancing figure. One I remember seeing uses the sash shape as a double for a window that opens up in Matissean fashion to a little still life.

    All of this brings up one final and decisive point about Bush’s practice; what I would say is at the very crux of his logic of painting that differentiates his work from the other color field painters. The banal reference to seeing a mannequin in a store window as the origin of all the Sash paintings exemplifies the larger stakes here. This is part of a larger essay I am writing on Bush so I will be brief. It involves the cosmopolitan nature of Toronto during the early 50s, the exponential growth of an advertising industry (in which Bush was involved), and the very real dialogue Bush had with other members of the Painters 11, Abstract Expressionism in New York, the color field painters, and finally Pop art. We don’t often think of color field painting in dialogue with pop, but this is part of Bush’s unique history and contribution. A comparative analysis between Bush and Andy Warhol as Toronto and New York’s two gurus of the art and advertising worlds helps stage the discussion. The heuristic helps to briefly sketch in one aspect of Bush’s project that turns on his initial shift to the vocabulary of stain painting, which is keyed especially to color memory and the significance of shape. These questions crop up most palpably in just how fraught Bush’s version of color field painting is. His motifs, which are adopted from his own early work as a commercial illustrator, the world at large as in the Sashes, or other artists (especially Kenneth Noland, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella) all make for an experience of viewing that is curiously durational: as viewers we note metonymic meaning and reference drifting in and out of focus. These processes have a larger purpose.

    For Bush it served a very gentle emancipatory effect bound up in very real and pragmatic questions of interpretation—because no one interpretation holds fast. The very subtle process by which we viewers detach his work from these references is the crux, and part of a conceptual labor his working process is inseparable from. Indeed, the fact of reference itself emerges as a real worry for Bush, something instanced especially in face of his proximity to Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Jasper Johns, all of whom come up in the late 1950s and early 1960s (intentionally or not) by virtue of Bush’s Banner or flag-like paintings and his use of bold and simple colors that approximate corporate logos. In this context the origin of the Sash paintings is simply one more example of a worrying reference. And of course, Bush’s encounters and entanglements with Pop have a history, one I would say that benefited from his dialogues with Greenberg, insofar as this led to his early recognition of dependence on a post-cubist stylistics and carried him into battle with Pop art in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to his subtle investigations of national identity through color memory, and finally to the various tug-of-wars he had with the high tradition, which leads to works in which he battles with himself, etc. Ultimately, as respondants to Bush’s work we need to be sensitive to the ways these interpretative pressures reveal the fugitive labor of extrication from these multiple and often troubled sources—something of an ad-man’s image bank—and how this intersects with the broader project of Greenbergian modernism, and what Greenberg believed that to stand for in the context of the Cold War.

    • Shep, I find what you are saying about Bush really interesting. The image of the mannequin is very, very interesting, as is the erotics of the series. There is so much more to see in color field painting than is generally recognized. But I wonder about the how the damage fits in. Time damages our bodies, but then what we love about a lover are the imperfections, the specifics of a life. That’s why it’s so hard to love an artwork with an immaculate photographic surface, at least that’s what I think. Or is it that this girl – because the picture is feminine, as you point out – has been treated shabbily, disregarded, even abused. I mean a coffee stain is somewhere outside the marks left by the normal struggle for life, a sign of genuine rudeness.

  2. Shep Steiner says:

    What you say is very poetic and it reminds me of what Stendahl says in De l’Amour. He talks of the small blemish on a woman’s face that sends him into raptures, which somehow manages to fix his gaze, remain vivid and fore-grounded all the while the lasting effects of love permit a slow unfocused pan out in order that the obscure beauty of the entire face he admires comes into view. The passage always related for me to the small blemishes on Noland’s Targets—but these spills and daubs of paint always come during the process of painting. Not after. The staple marks in Louis’s works sometimes exert a similar presence but they do not serve as a motor for the dialectic that Noland makes them serve. R. De Keyser on the other hand has made a couple of works in the early 1970s where aging and time is built into the canvas’s after life. In one in particular every couple of years he repaints the white lines on a painting that is a soccer field seen as if from a birds eye view. In terms of the questions you raise I am tempted to say that the photography of Wols comes closest, in that his negatives suffered in a cold damp chateau somewhere in Europe for many years. But I suppose even some of Donald Judd’s objects painted light cadmium red even make the grade—given the photo-degradation they are subject to and suffer from, many of the boxes are bruised. I guess my knee jerk reaction then is to try and think of art works where such effects are intentional or seem to border on intentional abuse, but this is perhaps only one of a number of instances of abuse that the art object suffers from, the exemplary example being abuse by interpretation.

  3. Abuse by interpretation—so true! And of course we both believe that we would never do such a thing. I was just thinking about Frank Stella, who proposed that Picasso got a good dose of Caravaggio during his time in Naples and that the influence shows up in some of his neo-classical figures. There is absolutely no empirical evidence for this at all, but then all speculation is driven by desire, fantasy and projection, as in fact are our relationships. In life we might be lucky to find someone who resists us by asserting their own fantasies and desires, but I’m not sure if artworks are that strong. I think we both subscribe to an ethic of attention to the work, of not wanting to impose our own ideas and needs, but is that possible? is violence unavoidable? Maybe artworks resist over longer time scales, rendering our interpretations ridiculous while they continue to thrive and elicit more desires from others. I really believe that the artwork’s life is an afterlife, meaning that what happens to it in history is what it is, so I don’t think that the artist’s intentions are that relevant. They can’t possibly give a work its freedom, any more than you or I could give that to a person. If they try to build in an afterlife they are just trying to extend their control into the future.

  4. Mark says:

    Interesting dialogue here about time and its effects on a work-especially as is often the case (as Robert points out) with colour field painting, for all of the reasons mentioned. I’ve often encountered works fitting that general category, in the usual places- university libraries, airports etc., and felt a twinge of embarrassment, for the artist, the work, and by some extension, myself (which is strange and hard to explain). Maybe acrylic surfaces are still too new (a funny thought, given our compressed sense of time) to hold a patina that most of us can find beautiful. Although I like that you do find it so, Robert. And I think deKeyser, and maybe I would add Tuymans, can help in this regard, given their intended abuse of some of their works. It strikes me that the A&L guys also made some works that had time or damage built into them in a weird way, like the studio series seen from the light of a nearby explosion… This also makes me think of Malcolm Morley. Apologies for the free assosciatin’. I’m sure you both know of the Target Practice exhibition. Would be interested to hear your thoughts… I’ll add the name of Charlene Von Heyl, who it seems to me builds shabby treatment, and logo-like forms (not unlike Bush on that count) into her works, many of which I find beautiful. Lastly, is it just me, or do Fontana’s fin de dio works bear their age much better than his more iconic linear concetto spaziale canvases?

    • Mark, you’re right that some artists work with a “shabby” look, and that’s kind of nice. And de Keyser is very interesting in that the incidentals seem important. Shep is the critic who has done the most with that. But I’m interested in the real patina of age, which can’t be planned or organized, because it just happens, and happens differently to different kinds of work. I once saw a ballpoint pen drawing by Alighiero Boetti in a private collection, and the graph paper was looking tattered and old. A charming effect, whether in a museum or an apartment, because the time in the work becomes real. Somehow I want to connect the time the work has lived through with the time in the work, if that makes sense.

    • Mark, just thought of something. I love Fontana’s work, and they do have a patina of age. Can’t bring to mind a Fin di Dio at the moment, but I once saw a great Concetto Spaziale stretched to show the back. The canvas was darkened with age. For some reason I find that attractive, but in Italy everything then gets assimilated to the same old master look, a very strange experience with modern art.

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