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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rauschenberg's Retrospective at MoMA

The Rauschenberg retrospective on the scale of the Stella show that closed last year is on its way to New York. I am wary of any attempt to see this exhibit, since my visit to the Stella retrospective at the Whiney in 2016 got my car towed with a hefty ransom to get it back. The dichotomy of the physical world where an object (my car) violates very real traffic laws because it interferes with the flow of traffic (a very real concern in NYC) and the museum show of an artist’s flights of the fancy troubles me and got me thinking about the disconnect between truth and art. So I will not risk my car in New York and, since I already have a feel for for the show from comments by the Abstract Critical  followers on Twitter in England ,where Rauschenberg's work was on exhibit at the Tate, and now by a review of that same show by Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books, I will risk  some opinions on Rauschenberg's oeuvre without the whole package in front of me.


I mention my real car and real laws of the outside world as this has some resonance with an often repeated quasi- Delphic statement made by Rauschenberg about how neither life nor art can be made and how his painting functions in the space between the two. Life is considered by him to be the hubbub outside the window except that it is not really outside of us in so far as we can successfully move in it only if we acknowledge its rules and regulations, which I didn’t when I ignored the no parking signs in NYC. His is a rather sophomoric statement on the level of the declarations of cosmic meaning of the stoned frat bros in “Animal House”. Perl does a good job of deconstructing the statement’s illogic. My first reaction is that, if for Rauschenberg painting exists between art and life, then does that mean that painting is not art. As for life, it follows very real laws. They may be hard to discern at times but they are formative. Perl points out Picasso’s drive for perfection. Is not this drive for perfection a struggle to discern rules that shape our world, of putting things back together again into a higher level of order. Rauschenberg is someone who knows how to take apart but does not know how to put things back together again in any meaningful way. He  has no interest in doing so and does not feel bad about it.

I was faulted by an artist, whose work I recently blogged about, for not discussing  her work on its own terms. I drew a distinction between her realism and the realism of Edwin Dickinson. Her work seemed unable to breach the distance between observer and the observed that was achieved in Dickinson’s work. It did not provide her any solace that I threw my work into the same categorical bin. I just wanted to define a category of painting that yearns for that connection between the self and the world but in the end fails to make the leap. That is a rather interesting position to be in rather than naively thinking you can bridge that gap. And as for making a leap of faith that may only be allowed to a few mystics.

I guess in that sense we have to be careful not to force Rauschenberg into a manner of thinking he consciously avoided. Except, that judging from Perl’s experience of the show as a whole, it seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth. He uses the adjective “unseemly”. From my knowledge of his work, the compilations of this work on a large scale in one building might elicit the response that someone should come to rework it and make radical sense out of it. I may have to venture to MoMA to experience this surfeit of undigested clutter.  I believe intuitive responses to the whole can be critical in understanding an artist’s work.While else have retrospectives.

I wrote in a blog awhile back about an interesting response that Heidegger made to a quote from Hegel. I tried to tie it to an understanding of de Kooning. The original statement by Hegel goes as follows:” A mended sock is better than a torn one.” Heidegger transforms it into his preferred form: “A torn sock is better that a mended one.”( a lot more violent construction than the Hegel comment) The discussion, which involves several philosophers, revolves around unity. When the sock is whole and being worn we are not aware of its unity. When it is torn we become aware or self-conscious of what holds it together in its being a sock. The tear points to a preceding wholeness. To mend the sock makes it whole again with a new self-awareness of an underlying unity. Is this not what de Kooning does: using cubism he takes the world apart and then aggressively with the template of the human body tries to mend it. Hegel says the scission points to a need for philosophy. This bringing back together is powerful in two ways: #1 the effort implied in the mending.#2 the force that resists this mending and wants to tear it apart again. de Kooning’s work participates in this dialectic as it moves back and forth between the whole and its parts to create a new whole.

de Kooning

Keeping with  sartorial metaphors, we could say that Rauschenberg is the master of mix and match. Because he ignores categories he can draw his playthings from all over the place. The effect of this strategy on subsequent generations of artist has been overwhelming. I wrote about this stylistic habit in the blog “Shake and Bake”. The artists in the show I reviewed have to be commended for not falling into the trap of Zombie Formalism, however there is a flaccid putting together of odds and ends that is clearly derivative of Rauschenberg. There is no anxiety in accepting the world as having fallen apart and needing mending. Perl says some critics see Rauschenberg as achieving the ”these fragments I have shored against my ruins” majesty of T.S. Eliot and is therefore the artist of the modern condition. Except that, as in the shake and bake crowd, there is none of the anxiety that Eliot felt about a world torn asunder.

Did Rauschenberg foreshadow the post-modern condition? According to Perl such a claim is made by Leah Dickerman in the catalog accompanying the show. I believe he did. For him the world is a sandbox where modernism provided him with all the uprooted and disembodied parts to play with. He was the artist perfectly suited for the new globalist space where everything is dislodged from its original context and shaped into momentary illusions of meaning which in the end are nothing more than an excessive piling of things on top of things. He is the happy prankster that mocks the emblems of the King’s claims to power. But being only a prankster and nothing more he has not the worries of a king nor interest in picking up the pieces.

If you like your postmodern condition you can keep your postmodern condition and Rauschenberg's your guy, but if not then you are left with a queasy feeling that art and society took a wrong turn in the middle of the last century and there is no turning back.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Innocence and Experience

Conversations at the Bow St gallery in Cambridge, once the most interesting alternative art space in the Boston area, were a fertile source for interesting blog posts. Owner/Artist, Addison Parks would bring groups of artists and art dealers together and the discussions that transpired were often lively. I would typically stand back and observe the banter. I could not keep up with the rapid repartee between Addison and book dealer/gallery owner John Wronoski. The late artist Larry Deyab once observed that all that back and forth was reminiscent of a Pinter play.

I recently participated in a curated show at an art center in VT. I had no great hopes for the work being purchased or written about as it was too far from the art circles of Boston. However, toward the end of the show the art director informed me that a local collector had taken an interest in my painting. He wanted to hang it in his home for a trial run to see if it stood the test of time, so to speak. The painting belongs to a body of work that is recent and more complex in its use of color that has slowly evolved from bubble gum to richer and more saturated colors with marks transmogrifying into the cyrillic alphabet.  I was flattered that here was a collector in the Vermont woods who could possibly “get it”, even as it turned out, only for a week or two.


I had on occasion wanted to broadcast the potential sale to family and friends but I have become a laconic Yankee and knew not, to use the cliché barnyard saying that a Vermonter might appreciate, to count your chickens before they hatch. I was curious nonetheless to know what had happened and instead of stoically accepting the verdict asked the director what had led to the collector’s change of heart. She divulged that it was in fact the collector’s nine years old daughter who was smitten with the work and wanted her reluctant father to purchase it. I envisioned a young aesthete stamping her foot down stammering “I wanting my painting and I want it now”. What she loved about it were in fact characteristics that I thought were no longer part of my work: the candy color and bubbly strokes applied with a cake decorator. “No daughter you can’t have a painting with the rainbow colors of the Little Pony.”  I assume to have a painting with such cloying infantile traits was more than he could stomach even if it might please his daughter. Anyway, realist that he presumably is, he knew that one day she would out grow it and like all her childhood toys it would be relegated to attic clutter.

Is there a moral to this story? Although certain critics have deciphered a hidden sinister aspect to my work that is being covered over by the colorful strokes applied with a pastry applicator (Rosanna Warren) or a sense of time in the paced application of my strokes (David Raymond) , my paintings have made several people angry to such a degree that they felt compelled to comment on my blog how repulsively saccharine they appear in color and mood. Or in the case of one artist/ critic, whom I was hoping would review my work in “Art New England", he had no idea what they were about. He just drew a blank. The use of my candy colors elicited excited responses in Provincetown years ago, where they were shown at DNA. Cate Mc Quaid in ”The Globe” responded twice to the  sensuality of the work. First in a show curated by Charles Giuliano. In her second review she found the sensuality was over the top. From my perspective the paintings challenge the typical viewer who is habituated to color used in optical color swatches in so much of the “Shake and Bake” abstraction that I see on line. My use of color eliciting synesthesia to merge appetitive and visual experience appealed to the hedonistic P’towners. But what if this child aesthete saw in the work something that partakes of the dichotomy between innocence and experience. Barbara O'Brien, currently director of the Kemper Museum, quoting Milton, titled the show of my work that she curated: "A Wilderness of Sweets". Addison Parks has pointed to my predilection for the feminine on several occasions in his reviews of the work on Artdeal and from the inception of this style at Crieger Dane in 2000 saw a paradisiacal return to the Garden.

Assuming that my premise is correct that what the nine year old girl saw in the work is analogous to the simple and innocent joys of a childhood toy like the “Little Pony”, I am reminded of analogous pleasures in Blake’s “The Lamb” : The mood of Spring, eternal recurrence of the prancing newborn lamb’s sheer delight in being alive. What is interesting is that this poem is spoken in the persona of a child:  ”I a child & thou a lamb”. It universalizes the spirit of the child’s and lamb’s innocence. What is this innocence? Why must innocence exist, when the lamb’s frolics in the green of Spring, end only in its  slaughter as a Spring lamb a few months later? Let us all be realists and scowl at the girl’s love of her little pony. The sooner she gets over it the better. As Beckett imagined, the newborn drops right from the womb into the grave.

                                                   The Lamb
                                        Little Lamb who made thee 
                                        Dost thou know who made thee 
                                        Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
                                         By the stream & o'er the mead; 
                                        Gave thee clothing of delight, 
                                        Softest clothing wooly bright; 
                                        Gave thee such a tender voice, 
                                        Making all the vales rejoice! 
                                        Little Lamb who made thee 
                                        Dost thou know who made thee 

                                        Little Lamb I'll tell thee, 
                                        Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
                                        He is called by thy name, 
                                        For he calls himself a Lamb: 
                                        He is meek & he is mild, 
                                        He became a little child: 
                                        I a child & thou a lamb, 
                                        We are called by his name. 
                                        Little Lamb God bless thee. 
                                        Little Lamb God bless thee.

For Blake, Christ was both a child and a lamb putting the innocence of the child and the lamb of the poem a priori in the realm of the godly. One cannot be a lamblike or a childlike without that innocence of God, which raises the question: what then is experience without innocence? Experience can only be a loss of innocence. Why do I in my painting linger in this realm of peachy keen colors if not to insist on the importance of this innocence that precedes experience. Or once out of the preternatural childhood realm of innocence can you ever get back to the garden? Can we move backward from experience to innocence so that innocence can be experienced at deeper and deeper levels as Nishitani says is possible with Nothingness?  Maybe the way back to the garden is to try to abandon the ego that one must have in relation to one’s interaction with the world. Is experience only the illusion of the shadows in Plato's cave. created by the light of pure innocence that we, so fixated on the here and now, cannot fathom?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lorraine Shemesh and the impossibility of the Romantic

Where we are currently in the cultural history of ideas is hard to pin down. Ex post facto is always easier. The past has already been packaged and defined by countless historians but the present as it evolves into the future is hard to fix and if we try to paste the past on the present we get into a lot of trouble. It seems to work momentarily like assuming Trump is Hitler or the removal of a statue of Columbus from a college campus is akin to the destruction of a Buddhist statue by the Taliban. But is the past really so well categorized and no longer open for discussion. This struck me when I wrote about a visit I made to Edwin Dickinson on Cape Cod in 1970. After I had seen his work at the Biennale in Venice in 1968, I found myself encouraged by his love of the observed world to persevere in my pursuit of realism in the context of the overwhelming dominance of High Modernism in mid-century America. However, in my more recent analysis of his work I noticed that his phenotype was more 19th century than 20thc and from the perspective of where we stand now seemed to float further and further into the past like some flotsam and jetsam thrown into the wake of a steamship until it is irretrievable and disappears out of sight. And I would add that if such a person were to live in our day and age he or she would be so out of  sync with the prevailing zeitgeist they would most likely go insane.

The most salient characteristic of Dickinson is artist as observer. Not an observer who looks coldly at the world but one who seeks to be at one with what he sees. He takes an anti-solipsistic stance where like Stevens in his great poem “Idea of order at Key West” Dickinson interweaves the self and nature. And most importantly Dickinson’s persona yearns for a meaning to one’s life on earth, a romantic ache for for a meaningful story on the world's stage.  It has a strong narrative bent where he is an actor in his own play. Not Beckett but Shakespeare with a beginning, middle and denouement. I have talked elsewhere of the deconstruction of the strong self at the hands of the deconstructionists or the supremacy of things a la Duchamp or the cosmic melding of self and society from Hegel where we are always mediated by being part of society. This is where we are currently in our world of art, a place where in in an essay on Jed Perl’s criticism I expressed the idea that we have been turning around in circles for quite some time. At the end of history there are no more mysterious unknowns ahead of us to conquer. We are surrounded by all the detritus of society that is circling around an immense black hole. As it circles around we are totally unaware that is slowly sinking into the abyss.

Recently, I sent out images of my new work to several names on my email list.  A few thoughtful replies came back acknowledging that the color of the new work was richer and more evocative. An unexpected reply came from Lorraine Shemesh whom I met , when we both studied at the BU Summer program in Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1969. Phillip Pearlstein was the artist in residence and several well-known New Realists came to visit most notably Al Leslie. There was a lot written about the New Realists in the art press at the time, which peaked with a cover story in Newsweek in 1970 featuring a painting by Bill Bailey on the cover. Two years later he would be my senior project advisor at Yale. Another fellow student at Tanglewood, Paul Dinger arranged a visit to Leslie’s studio in NYC after the program ended for an article in the art magazine “Boston Review of the Arts”,  that he had recently founded. Probably for the only time in my life I felt as an artist part of a movement.

Shemesh shows at the Allan Stone gallery in New York. Judging from the images in the two catalogs she sent me, she is clearly well trained in the tradition of classical painting as it was taught at BU where she got her BFA in 1971. The first catalog is a retrospective of her work, which culminates around 2009 with her iconic pool paintings that have evolved from swimmers at the surface or just below to a view of their now faceless bodies and body parts totally submerged. Whereas the earlier painting retained the notion of an observation of swimmers in a recognizable setting, the latest work puts the observer in with the observed. She does not rely on a romantic search for connections between herself and the environment that allows Dickinson to overcome his solipsistic isolation but conveys rather the inability to jettison the self in such a liquid realm. Of course to swim casually in a non-competitive manner implies the desire of the swimmer to enjoy being buoyed up by a warm and caressing world similar to the amniotic fluid that supports a fetus.  Shemesh retains a strange, almost awkward, disconnect between the possibility of a merger between the water and the physical hardness of the body that resists it. There is built into her work the impossibility of the kind of cosmic explosion of the self of a Pollack or the a priori connection one finds in Dickinson or for that matter the poems of Walt Whitman.  I think that this is inherited from her realist background but also from the edgy postmodernist zeitgeist of the New York scene. I find myself using the word impossible again as I did in the essay on the play at BAM on Thomas Merton that stated unambiguously  the impossibility of transcendence in a world awash in physical drives and passions. Or the word incommensurable to express the distance of paint and meaning when I wrote about a show I had with Paul Pollaro at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston.