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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Winters,Held,Kiefer and Rothenberg at the Met

Summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Retitled "Capturing the Concentrated Moment" by Brett Baker of "Painters Table"

By: Martin Mugar - 07/22/2013

Click to Enlarge
Our being in the world is doubly constructed, first by our own personality and secondly by the public reality that by chance surrounds us. That we can’t jump out of our own shadow is a given when we take stock of ourselves. We are always situated in a place and time and that place and time is understood from out of our personal limitations and the constraints of  society. In the art world the place and time is defined by the art media, i.e. whatever is thrown up for us to respond to.  We do not choose what is given to us to observe. The fact of the matter is that most people accept both blindly. They are at ease with the destiny given them, and whatever the media presents on a monthly basis. To try to deconstruct these two is not an easy task and who would want to bother. At some point we accept our personality especially if we are by chance  hoisted up on the shoulders of the art world or render some sort of service for which we are compensated. Accepting the status quo can be lucrative as well. To be at ease with both must be heaven on earth.
I experienced something strange in the large room of post 60’s modernist work upon my last visit to the Metropolitan museum, that seemed to deflate a moment in time that was once a monumental part of my artistic life. What was on exhibit had the art establishment’s approval of being blue chip. The curators, the galleries, the collectors, and the critics (or some subset of critics) were all in agreement this must be work to consider seriously. There was a a black on white geometric shape painting by Al Held, a Terry Winters of webs and nets, the famous Anselm Kiefer painting of flowers made in part of straw, a Susan Rothenberg totemic abstraction. I can remember acknowledging their strength either in their art magazine reproductions or in museums. I accepted that they had cultural weight and that there was some serious thinking behind them. Held, the positivist, who believed in the reductive language of science. Winters using the same ellipses as Held  casts them more existentially likes nets upon the real. Rothenberg saw the underpinnings of the real hovering between shape recognition and amorphous paint. Kiefer meditated on the weight of Nazi past on a German in the modern world.
There was a strange feeling of desuetude in this room.  The paintings seemed to have less gravitas. I reflected on what caused the work to fade in stature before my eyes:  #1 the canvas as being able to express philosophical ideas seemed in doubt. #2 Maybe the first intersection with an idea and an image seemed to be where the artist stopped and suffered from arrested development. Lets consider #2: Winters with this casting of the net that catches nothing evokes the void, in the same way that Giacometti’s gestures create a space between the artist and the thing he is representing, without catching the thing itself. But does it suffice to say this once or does this meditation on the void merit a life long engagement and moreover can the net capture some essence over time. To do this would be more in keeping with the active nihilism that Nietzsche espoused. The constant orbiting of the self around the void that is suggested in the philosophy of Nishitani, which renders a deeper understanding of the void with each orbital passage. Benefitting from the availability of more recent work online by Winters it is clear that he did not go down that path and in fact seems to have wallowed in a lazy abstraction that is no better than what you see in regional art venues. Held’s positivist belief in Science was absolute and led him to a sort of delirious evocation of the self, expressed as its endless extension into as much space as nature provides it to fill. It seemed to come from a less cynical era and seemed analogous to the American exploration of outer space. It is interesting that Kiefer’s eschews structures except for the death houses and builds his paintings of flowers out of the fragile stuff of organic nature. They are the opposite of the reassuring solidity of Held’s structure by this German who saw positivist technology run amok in Nazi Germany. His work thrives on angst and guilt. However, as in Winters the repetition of the mood in recent work renders no new emotional territory. Rothenberg’s Dance on the edge of recognition and intransigent stuff is hard to repeat over a lifetime and keep  fresh. Judging from what I see online, Rothenberg’s latest work like Winter’s suffers from inertia. It is god forbid more representational than abstract. The passion is gone; the delicate yet important balance between the object and unshaped matter is no longer there. It is more image than raw material.
2009 Rothenberg
Maybe the work on display which was all from the 20th century needed to be redeemed by a sense of an authentic journey, All of the work was mid career work and only Held, in his later years took his painting to a higher level. In the case of Winter’s, Rothenberg and Kiefer the work stagnates. The edgy realm they worked out of that seemed so culturally relevant does not seem worthy of the big name galleries they show in (I am still intimidated when I go into Sperone Westwater or Matthew Marks). I think that the artists bought into the labels that the art critics gave them. It was a perfect cultural storm of the work fitting into a cultural agenda and being successfully thrust on the public, but it was a storm in which their creativity did not survive.
Winters 2014
As long as people have a conscience and a sense of what lies underneath them, whether it is science or the void or the weight of history then painting will remain that concentrated moment, that intersection, where the self is shaped by its knowing of those realms. So I will abandon my first hunch that painting is dead. Maybe what I had to get over was the arrogance of the cartel that hyped the work, Now that the hot media presence has receded into history the paintings are left high and dry to function on their own. They are imbued with fragility. They are not supported by big ideas, just ideas. Maybe that is for the best. The New York art scene was bigger and noisier than it is now and the works were all over sized to match the egos of the artists and the dealers. The din of the battle of the titans has subsided and all that is left are the weapons created in that battle. They still communicate and maybe have more nuances than they did when they were often cudgels used to crush the competition.
I have jumped out of the shadow cast by these artists. And I have jumped out of the shadow cast by my own limitations. I am no longer susceptible to being impressed. I am not surrounded by artists with their fawning need to situate themselves within a context. There are ideas in these paintings that still communicate. I hope there are younger painters who will learn from their exploration of the visual to embody their emotions and ideas.

P.S.
Another big name has jumped the rails: Gerhard Richter. I gave him credit for the squeegee paintings that seemed to function as an event. This new work, as his whole involvement with color was never organic, could not evolve into a new space and is therefore limp and looks like carnival spin painting.
It is post-climactic.In the end his interest in color was in the material of the paint not an inner sense of color and mood.

Reader Comments
From "Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship"
07-22-2013, 09:33 am
Good writing! D. H. Lawrence wrote a similar comment on art history in his article on Cezanne in Poets on Painters (Paperback).
From "Paul Pollaro"
07-22-2013, 09:31 am
Oh, yeah, I liked the Held. Yes Rothenberg has become a good illustrator and Kiefer has turned to feeling the heat and humidity on a summer day with a breeze. not a bad thing..
From "Mark Gottsegen"
07-22-2013, 09:30 am
We are both older and smarter and no longer taken in with the "next new thing [idea]." This was a good calming little essay.

Half of my entry in "100 Boston Artists" published by Schiffer Publishing