Saturday, August 14, 2021

Forge at Betty Cuningham and Dave Row in Rockland Maine



There has been a good deal of enthusiasm for the work of the late Andrew Forge recently shown at Betty Cuningham in NYC. The subtitle for the show” The Limits of Sight” seemed mistaken. My first reaction is: Whoever titled this show as such is making the grand claim that Forge in his work is establishing the limits of vision once and for all by working in the domain of the optical world of cones where color is activated in the retina, beyond which there is nothing.  I am sure that he did not make that claim himself. Impressionism used this organizational strategy, which was most refined in the work of Seurat, where it took on the rubric of Pointillism. Reality reduced to cone generated dots that is known in the world of cognitive psychology as a lower order event. Structurally it can be considered a ground for and or a description of the visual world of things which in cogntive theory is a higher cognitive event. Seurat was not an abstract painter but used an abstract cognitive language of seeing as his underpinning of a representational world. Another contemporary practitioner of dots as support for representation is Chuck Close. Forge can be seen as someone who jettisons the representational end point using the pointillist ground to create these lower-order cognitive events. If you look at him in contrast to dot-meisters Richter, Hirst or Kusayama , they are more self-consciously abstract and the marks show no residue of brush marks.  The gesture of Forge is one of the traditional hand-application of the brush to canvas. A dot in Hirst or Richter is derived from the world of graphic design. I should add that I did not see the show. I was able to zoom in on several of the paintings so as to see the quality of the brush stroke which were decidedly rather thinly applied brush stroke.   


This more traditional application of paint opens up his work to a gestalt of open-ended exploration; an almost religious feel of anticipation. Moreover, the choice of colors is not color-pack derived as in Hirst or Richter. The mood is one of “where the painting is going to take the viewer” rather than where the painting “is” which is in the modernist ethos of Stella or the later work of Al Held hammered down. All dominated by the harsh connection of part and whole that controls the outcome ahead of time.

On the one hand he abandons the representational goal of Seurat and Close but on the other hand does not revert to a hard modernist ethos. 

This notion of a painting existing in time took on more meaning when I saw the work of David Row currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art which is more about space. It is probably one of the more perfect installations I have ever seen. The symbiosis of the museum space and the works of art is well that symbiotic. The work is modernist as is the space. The scale is large enough to activate the space or another way of putting it the space does not overwhelm the works. The paintings push out into the space. Some of the imagery is of abstract shapes that are fissured as though having submitted to a seismic shift so that the museum space moves into the opening provided by the painting. The only doubt I have is does this seamless interaction of space and work point out an over dependence of the painting on the space. Maybe it is not a valid question as if one were to think that Michaeleangelo’s nudes were too dependent on the space of the Sistine Chapel. But there is no doubt the paintings are a sort of spatial installation. Row’s work that is also on exhibit at the Cove gallery in Portland along with other Maine connected artists. The work is smaller and there is no attempt to make the work interact with the exhibition space. Although the work is strong it does hint at its need for a monumental space to achieve its true visual impact. 


In a review by Peter Plagens of one of Row’s New York shows, Plagens takes issue with what he refers to as “fussed over surface” which figure in the work at the Maine contemporary art space. I had an inspiration of a body of work where the scratched or roughed up surface was replaced by Forges’ probing pointillist marks. It would be a sort of hypertext that dug into the space of the canvas and at the same time reached out into the gallery space. 

But that is probably more than one person could achieve in a lifetime.


                                                      Center for Maine Contemporary Art                                                                                                                                                      


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Is there a Connection between Materiality and Painting from the French Deconstructionists to Ha Chong Yuan

Almost a year after I wrote my essay in 2013 on Zombie Abstraction I got an email from Mark Stone at that I had received confirmation of my role in coining the term Zombie Formalism from “Art in America” critic Raphael Rubinstein in an article he wrote in that magazine on French postmodernist thinking and French abstraction:"Theory and Matter" My son who has a Phd in internet studies said getting that reference in hard copy was the Mt Rushmore of writing in the digital realm. Not long after that thumbs-up I attended a lecture by the artist Sharon Butler, at the Maine College of Art. She is the founder of the ezine “Two Coats of Paint” and the term “casualist painting” that competes with Rubinstein’s “provisionalist” painting that defined much of the painting in the “Forever Now” show at MoMA. In the Q&A after the lecture Butler who had read, I suspect, my blogpost that written in response to John Yau’s article in Hyperallergic , introduced me as the coiner of Zombie Formalism. Walter Robinson of course for most people is the fountainhead of the ZF moniker even though he wrote of it several months later and Jerry Saltz placed him squarely in the  lineage (but no mention of my work), wrote an essay in the New York magazine that made it a current term of the art world. 

Ha Chonghyun (Ha Chong Yuan)

For some reason I never read the whole article by Rubinstein. A recent article again by Yau in Hyperallergic on Korean abstraction referred to as Dansaekhwa and the specific concern for a member Ha Chong Yuan. Support and surface issues are central in his painting  and made me recall the article by Rubinstein, which draws a direct link from French postmodernist theorists such as Derrida, Lacan and other Maoist thinkers such as Badiou and a bevy of young artists in the 70’s who took their words  seriously enough to deconstruct the pristine metaphysical structure of the flat surface. Hence: Theory and Matter . There is no attempt by Yua to connect Ha Chong Yuan with this movement but I am sure it exists. And as he missed on the zombie label he seems to miss out on the history of support and surface. It would be fruitful in creating an east/west link.  Unlike the French artists who in the style of Hantai take apart the ground completely verging on sculpture Hua reconstructs his surfaces to emulate Rymanesque monochromism and in its reliance on thin parallel horizontal lines the work of Agnes Martin.  But these two American artists retain a painterly visuality whereas Ha adds another dimension in the laborious way the pictures are constructed out of slats of wood through which a limited palette of paint is squeezed through from behind and then adumbrated with wire diagonally applied. In reproduction the work does look like either Martin and Ryman, but once one understands the way they are built a whole new level of meaning is attained through a notion of materiality and labor. Schwabsky in Art Forum points out the title of Ha’s painting is called “Conjunctions” referring to paint and support merging. This emphasis of the painting acknowledging and giving primacy to support has to have come out of the French connection. Or maybe it was the France based Hungarian Hantai who influenced them. 

"Theory and Matter" Pierre Buraglio

What I missed in not reading thoroughly the Rubinstein piece is his discussion of the know-nothing attitude of zombie formalism. And Schjeldahl’s dismissal of the art that issued from French theoretics. American Art could stand on its own.  It has an innate swagger that Bataille noticed in the American soldiers arriving in Paris after WW11. I talk about it here  Of course, it is well-known that none of the zombie formalists espouse that label or see it as definitive of their work. Rubinstein said that its freedom from theory maybe makes it susceptible to the kind of mercenary flipping that Robinson described in his essay. The joke about the stock market being just cans of sardines comes to mind: “These sardines are not for eating. They are for buying and selling” said a business friend of my father when I inquired years ago about a current stock market boom. The French artists build their art on the shoulders of Maoist and Marxist revolutionaries that want to change the world for the better. Zombies are neo-liberal merchants who reduce art to merchandise. I remember in highschool staying at the Ritz Carlton at a room rented by this friend of my father who merchandised toothbrushes. There was a supermarket toothbrush display set up in the room. I vaguely recall the name of the salesman. Nev Levinson? I learned later from my dad that the salesman ended up in prison for fraud or some other corrupt activity. In my mind he is conflated with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Bleakly pushing goods around for a cut of the action. It was a side to my father that he did not want to dwell on but I do recall on several occasions where he talked about other business acquaintances who wondered about what it all meant. A story of a successful lawyer friend who would turn the lights out in his office and touch in the dark all the accoutrements of his trade including awards et alia. My artist friend Addison Parks, who had something of the priest about him would periodically find defects in my character, once blamed my father for having some nefarious nihilistic influence on me. At the time I dismissed his attempt to subject me to deep analysis as way off base especially in so far as my father created an image of himself that I accepted as a decent man who cared about the welfare of those around him. There must have been some fear on the part of Addison that my art was not all hunky dory and not just the child’s garden to play in that he described in the invitation of my first solo show at Crieger-Dane in Boston. What he must have sensed, that scared him as it does many other people, was a rather nihilistic notion that maybe the secret garden to play in is enshrouded in a kind of void. That the primal thrust is not to creating harmony but rather a raw Nietzschean will to power and its attendant destruction of what is.

Joan Miro

I recently received a link to a blog post by the abovementioned Mark Stone about the late work of Miro. My gosh it is a grim exploration of the canvas as battleground. Gone is the playful child’s garden that so influenced Calder.   Had Calder who clearly saw child’s play in the work of Miro been aware of a nihilistic streak in his work? My attempt to create a good guy/bad guy dichotomy in my Calder/Warhol essay been misguided. Are they both bad guys? Had Calder’s (Woventale's version of my blog) playmate in the playground always been an enemy of painting. Schjeldahl quotes him from early on: 

“I want to assassinate painting,” Joan MirĂ³ is reported to have said, in 1927. Four years later, the Catalan modern master elaborated, in an interview: “I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting.” 

This grimness seems to be the other side of the Dada coin. Maybe the jump into the surreal has more to the do with an embrace of the void rather than the child’s garden.  Stone seems to see that this is no longer  a critique of capitalism and commodification as Miro attempts but rather the status quo of art and the world we currently live in.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Outside the Walls, a meditation on the contemporary scene

 One thing I miss is the time when America had big dreams about the future. Now it seems like nobody has big hopes for the future. We all seem to think that it’s going to be just like it is now, only worse.

Andy Warhol, America

It’s sort of my philosophy—looking for the nothingness. The nothingness is taking over the planet.

—The Andy Warhol Diaries

 Art outside the Walls

These quotes followed the byline of Gary Indiana’s hit job on Blake Gopnik’s “Warhol” in Harper’s. I was directed to the article by Jed Perl after I sent him my blogpost on his “Calder” that compared their two mega tomes that were published this year. In that blogpost I pointed out that Calder uploaded his metaphysics of form into the popular culture and Warhol took “pop” culture and downloaded it his work. I thought that was rather clever of me! 

 Judging from the above quotes I thought that the Harper’s article might deal with the subject of nothingness in the work of Andy. The second quote seems to be a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous quote about how the wasteland grows. In an earlier essay I referred to Warhol as an acolyte of the church of contemporary nothingness. 15 minutes of fame was all the transcendence we would know in life. In a brief exchange with Gopnik on twitter when Gopnik’s book first came out I got gopnik to read the above-mentioned essay, which he found interesting but wrong. He went on to praise Koons as the successor to Warhol. He used the term aesthetic agnosia as Koon’s contribution the world of art. Aesthetic agnosia is a sort of brain damage that disallows as it were the recognition of an object. Does Koon’s cause brain damage or is the use of the term meant to describe Koon’s rendering of his objects inaccessible to normal aesthetics. Is not nihilism just an expansion of our notion of what is aesthetic. There seemed to be a resistance on Gopnik’s part to my attempt to see Warhol as a priest of the religion of nothingness. Based on the above quotes Warhol was no philosophical neophyte. 

The Indiana piece surprisingly did not deal with nihilism despite the quotes but was a rather straightforward essay on a book that seems to be a rehash at  best and badly written at the worst.

Over the years artists have left comments on my blog insisting that the so-called nihilistic tendencies of Zombie Formalism provided just another tool in the artist’s toolbox to make interesting art. These comments were framed in a sort of resentment that the use of the term nihilism that has such mean connotations should be applied to the postmodern phenomena of neo-abstraction. I never said that such art was off limits but rather that is had consequences. And made it difficult for an artist to engage the work of the visual powerhouses of Pollock, Gorky, Rothko and de Kooning in a sort of visual battle in the way they had engaged Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky in their work. Raphael Rubinstein named it ‘provisional painting’ and Sarah Butler named it casualist painting, both monikers implying a rather open-ended attitude toward painting, on the one hand not aggressively reductive and on the other not reaching for a Hegelian self-overcoming. I once lauded her strategy of putting that kind of painting in a negative dialectic with modernism. A handle for art critics to grab on to. Addison Parks in Boston put together a show called “the severed ear” that seemed to say abstraction is a visual language that need not be only a noisy gigantomachia but should be spoken as it were to describe day to day experiences. He included the witty deconstruction of Richard Tuttle and the private narrative of a life lived in the art of Tim Nichols. In the case of Parks, he just liked that kind of painting as it seemed to allow for more autobiography. In the case of Rubinstein it seemed to be a sort of weak Hegelianism influenced indirectly by the philosopher Vattimo’s notion of “weak being.”  Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe references one of the adherents of the provisionalist school Charlene von Heyl in an article he wrote called Teaching What Can’t be Taught” whose work was included in the “Forever Now” show at MoMA. Whereas the show was premised on the end of dialectics and history where in the lingo of Fukuyama the same ideas just get recycled, Jeremy puts her in a world of just good painting, where quoting Herbie Hancock on playing with Miles Davis: They just got it right as the music was playing itself. 

For me I cannot shake the creative explosion of the Impressionists and its seminal effect on Modernism. It seemed based on a deeper cognitive notion of how our eye/mind shapes the world and I probably rather naively thought that more and deeper insights could be drawn from that period in time. Reading the work of cognitive scientist David Marr in the late 80’s it even seemed possible to come up with an abstraction that went deeper or somewhere else. Svetlana Alpers who was introduced to my book on drawing and painting had read his work but had not predicted the same radical conclusions. Serendipitously I learned that a colleague of Alpers at UC-Berkeley Whitney Davis had such hopes and expresses his disappointment in an interview from “Farewell to Visual Studies” edited by James Elkins et alia.  But the postmodern equivocation of cultural and scientific insights made it impossible to construe anything world changing of the visual in his work. Scientific culture has been problematized as purely a Western phenomenon on par with the world views of other cultures. As well as our popular “pop” culture.  In the mean-time social issues so dominant in the thirties and forties of the last century have overtaken temporarily the commercial world of art. Interestingly enough the book which is collection of discussions on the role of Visual Studies at the University level there are scant references to contemporary artists. 

I have been led to repeat some territory already covered in earlier blogposts and in my book as a prelude to writing about a show of a former student she put together in Black Mountain NC. Such a portentous place where Albers taught painting and Charles Olson taught poetry. I said I could not promise that it would be sympathetic and mentioned my review of a show by Lorraine Shemesh, who I was a student with at Tanglewood with Philip Pearlstein as the artist in residence. Just had this flash that she does underwater Pearlstein’s. In any case I used it a pretext for the impossibility of what could have been very romantic paintings but placed a barrier between the seer and the seen. And talked about the romanticism of Edwin Dickinson that was so 19thc with its Shakespearean notion of the seer.

The art world is so beholden to the historical and its Hegelian version that it is absolutely impossible to get recognition if you are outside the zeitgeist or in some way either evolving with it the dialectics or consciously rejecting them. A former student talked about an interesting exchange with Roberta Smith and her husband Jerry Saltz on the relationship of his art to the contemporary scene. Although Saltz came across as the mensch he plays on twitter, he peremptorily dismissed this student’s involvement in painting the figure in the landscape as overdone in the art world and not worth talking about. This is without seeing the student’s work. I have found the notion of a personal journey in art that might conjure up some necessary interactions with art of the past crucial to being an artist. IN the 90’s I was soaking up and applying so much AbEx only to be told by an art historian at UNH that it has already been done. The harsh constraints imposed by the academicians on the individual artists.

Despite attempts to contemporize the show with its title “The feminine gaze” and have it carried along by notions of the diversity of a women’s gaze like all art the medium is the message. Moreover, the strength of the work lies in the success with which each artist uses their respective mediums. Fortuitously Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in the above quoted essay cites Paul Valery who felt that ceramics was the highest form of art as it involves the possibility of the piece blowing up in the kiln. This possibility haunts Melisa Cadel’s work reinforcing a notion of the fragility of the human ego and the human body. The ego seems strengthened in the ceramic of the bald head empowered by the wreath of bloodied hands. The reference to a native American headdress works in that the role of feathers is to empower the wearer with the power of the bird from whence they came. Or are  they “scalps”  of past conquests. People get bloodied in her work; there is a man presumably killed by a victorious woman. No matter how adversarial the images seems in the end  the bald headed woman surrounded by her conquests seems to speak to vulnerability. Is the work about fragility of our human conquests? The hoody that is flat on the floor  might be a reference to wife killer Carl Andre whose work was often placed in the same manner on the floor? I have lately been reading about Cormac McCarthy and his classic "Blood Meridian" that someone described as a mix of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" and Melville's "Moby Dick". Is this ceramic head that of Judge Holden the scalper?

Cunningham and Bessac

Angela Cunningham has learned marvelously the techniques of verisimilitude. Realism’s evolution from the Early to the High Renaissance results in an increase in the recognition of individual personality in portraiture. Angela understands the connection between oil painting technique and the uniqueness of each person’s face. In the Mannerists that precision becomes “mannered” and less precise. Angela stops before that stage. The technique of chiaroscuro perfected by Caravaggio leaps beyond the mannerists and is where Angela chooses not to go. She feels at home in the seamless connection of body and face that playing around with black and white might undermine. So different from John Currin an artist who used classical techniques only to mock their ability to describe a self.

                                                      Cadel and Cunningham

Anne Bessac makes that leap using charcoal within the language of chiaroscuro. Functioning on the borderline of using black and white both as abstraction/flatness and the voluminous allows her to achieve an energy that is reminiscent on the one hand of Richard Serra’s abstract charcoal drawings and Jim Dines figurative drawings. This juggling of the two directions that the use of value can take the viewer gives her work a great deal of visual sophistication.  The faces are suppressed in favor of the bodily presence. Like those two artists she “values” the white of the page incising the marks made by the line into its whiteness. The woman’s monumentality reference the earth mothers of prehistoric times. 

                                                                  Cadel and Bessac

Although the works in this show are a vehicle for the contemporary political agon of feminism they show a reverence for both the material used and the historicity of the visual languages. They are hermeneutical. They reach back into the past to see how those languages can be used as platforms for contemporary narratives.

                                                                     The above work can be seen at the: 
                                                                     Flood Gallery, Black Mountain, NC
                                                                  “Diverse, The Contemporary Female Gaze”
                                                                      November 15, 2020-January 31, 2021

                                                                   A critique more focused on the artists

followed by a thoughtful comment by Anne Bessac 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Divagations on Jed Perl's second volume of "Calder"

As I began to think about finishing my reading and reviewing Jed Perl’s monumental second volume of the life of Calder, the art world was inundated by the responses to the publication of Blake Gopnik’s thousand page book on Warhol. I gathered from a few exchanges with Gopnik online that he sees the media saturated work of Warhol and Koons as the incontrovertible art of the present and in that sense world changing. The edge between mass culture and the individual has broken down and this duo with their philosophically hip intersubjectivity are defining the present and are the wave of the future. I came away with this encounter with Gopnik and the reading of Perl with what seemed to be a vision of two worlds diametrically opposed. On the one hand you have Calder who has uploaded the modernistic visual language of Miro into his own mobile work and in so doing added to its self-understanding as a transcendent language in defining the modern experience. He then heroically shepherds it from the world of kinetics down to earth into stabile sculpture where it takes its place in the public spaces created by the new urban landscape. On the other hand you have Warhol downloading the images of mass culture into his consciousness and calling them or at least being called by the art world high art. To make that claim requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming reality of mass visual media(television and movies) as dominant of the world we live in. It is a passive acknowledgment of the way the media colonizes our consciousness. It is in a sense reactionary as it is based on a parallel understanding between the flat screen of painting and the flat screen of the cinema and television. Nothing can be more antipodal to Calder who explodes the flat images of Miro into mobile 3D imagery. It is a continuation of the modernist vision of transforming our science-based notion of space and time started by the cubists. The history of Western art experiences this sort of upheaval periodically as in the perspective of the Renaissance or the chiaroscuro of the Baroque. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro affected a change on painting that lasted three hundred years until its decadent manifestation in the Salon painters. Even the epigone of “everybody can be an artist” Jerry Saltz has come out with an article in New York magazine acknowledging his world changing genius.(did he plagiarize that as he did my exercise on abstract patterns from my book on drawing and painting where I made the above point about Caravaggio? )

In the context of Gopnik’s attempt to supplant the centrality of the modernism of Picasso and Miro with the media critique/pastiche of Warhol, Perl’s book could not be more timely. It reminds us of the uniquely inventive transformations that individuals bring to the greater culture. If Gopnik’s Warhol gives credence to the importance of the mediated world we live in by downloading its banality into his imagery, Calder uploads the individual creations of Miro into sculpture with a new notion of time and space. Reading Perl’s description of Calder’s life midst the movers and shakers of modernism creates a lucid image of the negotiations and strategies these artists pursued as they take their place on both sides of the Atlantic in the creative storm of modern art. Those events take place in the context of the political turmoil of the 20thc that could have easily swallowed them up. Interestingly, we see that the intellectual evolution of Calder’s work seems to parallel the architectural transformation of the urban scene so as to create a kind of urban space starting in the 1950’s perfectly adapted to Calder’s work. At the very beginning of the second volume, Perl describes the events leading up to the installation of the stabile “Grande Vitesse” in Grand Rapids Michigan. There was a newfound pride in the city that created sufficient wealth to replace the antiquated landscape of 19thc America with a sleek new modernism. Although the industrialists were for the most part pedestrian in their artistic tastes, in the case of Grand Rapids one town father was married to an artistic sophisticate Nancy Mulnix who had been aware of Calder’s work early in her life and was an aficionado of modernism at a time when a taste for its subversive ideas was not shared by the general public. Perl reminds us that the world out of which Calder’s work came was defined by the writings of Joyce, the art of Picasso, the music of Stravinsky and the dance of Balanchine. At mid-century this was still the avantgarde. As the old 19thc Grand Rapids succumbed to urban renewal and the 19thc city hall despite protests from a public ,who as in so many cases such as Boston, came to appreciate the old just as it was being destroyed, a new city hall was being designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill. (Ironically some of the modern buildings that replaced 19thc Boston are slated for demolition). The building that might have looked impressive if it was on the scale of a New York City skyscraper it comes across as a rather squat low budget expression of the modernist spirit. Doing some research on the Vandenberg plaza now commonly called the Calder Plaza, it appears that to this day few citizens are pleased with the outcome of the urban renewal of a half century ago. Much nostalgia is expressed toward the destroyed city hall. However, the disappointment over the antiseptic urban space does not extend to the Calder which is for the most part admired and appreciated on its artistic merit. The high tide of modernism left its mark with numerous Calder’s throughout the Urban landscape. 

Calder Plaza Grand Rapids MI

What intrigues me is the lifespan of artistic ideas from their inception and to their waning.  Perl does a marvelous and painstaking job doing contact tracing of the ideas of Calder and the avant garde of the time. He was the avantgarde and Man Ray is the only other American I can think of who played as successfully in the transatlantic stage of modernism as did Calder. One gets a sense of its transcendent nature of ideas being exchanged from mountain peak to mountain peak although the image that often comes to mind is a rather mundane one of a ball being tossed sideways or downfield in a match of rugby on its way to its destination. Or maybe a better one would be the Monty Python soccer match of philosophers shouting out their oracular insights to the world without going anywhere. Although Calder was not a theorist and kept his ideas to himself, Calder’s world seemed to function on the belief that ideas matter and that his work was destined to be the vehicle for a new expression of time and space. The ball that is being passed around on its way to the stabiles started out with Miro. One sees its effect on Gorky. So dominant and salient is his influence Perl at one point in the book wonders if Calder who was a neighbor of Gorky in Connecticut had influenced Gorky’s late work. Maybe so, but a case could be made for the parallel influence and evolution of Miro on both their oeuvres. 

The ideas embodied in Calder’s work are embedded in our day to day life. The most salient  example are the mobiles as the conceptual basis for crib toys. It is easy to ignore the fact that their prevalence has to do with the depth of their scientific understanding of time and space. Mondrian and de Stijl had an influence on architecture and fashion but to have transformed the experience of a child’s first years of life is quite astounding. Moreover, they are so seamlessly inserted into that realm that it is hard to imagine crib life without them. 

But this is the way that new concepts work. They shake things up reshaping the world we live in. And then because of their ubiquitousness like electricity their conceptual depth is forgotten. 

Reading “Calder” required an adjustment of my habitual expectations of the reading of Perl’s writing. I always enjoy his incisive critique and deflation of the art “powers that be”. I have spoken with many artists who are part of his fandom. We all seem to suffer in silence from the exclusivity of the art world with Perl our sole public voice. I wonder if they found it difficult to read a book by Perl that is unequivocally enthusiastic about its subject. Calder’s life is nothing short of a never-ending story of successfully achieving venues for his work and the best critical response. The successes come from the start: being born to a family of artists who provided important career connections, a perfect marriage, meeting up with the French avantgarde at the right time,  joining the transatlantic artistic aristocracy and then toward the end of his life achieving a near total conquest of the world of public sculpture in the USA and Europe. The only way to read this biography is to go along for the ride. Perl has provided not only the large arcs of that life but the infinitesimal detail.  

Warhol version of a Calder Mobile

The strange disconnect of this glorious life and work and its seamless embodiment of a positivistic scientific understanding of time and space seems distant from our postmodern times. A large majority of what is exhibited manifests the societal critique of the self, caught in the web of a societal construct whether it is shaped by a notion of Marxist false consciousness or the pandemic of social media.  This is Warhol’s era. Cynically Ironic. Power hungry. No wonder that Warhol and Trump were both mentored by Joe McCarthy’s lawyer Roy Cohn. 

 this essay has been picked up by Woventale Press with some edits that accentuate the difference between Warhol and Galder


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Photographer Joseph Podlesnik and Provisional Painting

There is an old Maine locution “You can’t get there from here” that is a response to a question from a lost driver getting directions in the Maine backcountry. Factually it states the obvious: it might be hard to describe the way places are connected by convoluted country roads but it also embodies a kind of laconic Yankee spirit that raises the question of why would one bother to go elsewhere when here might be just fine. Joseph Podlesnik adds to this dialogue: once you get there leaves us in a quandary: There may not be a here at all.

In photography and painting perspective has often been the main visual tool that connects the human presence to the here and now which becomes place. The image created by the handheld camera establishes ipso facto a tight bond via the picture plane on the back of the camera to the environment. If it is parallel to the subject matter or at an angle to it, the way the eye is moved by the image can be quite different. In an 8x10 format you can actually manipulate the plane in the back of the camera to be in alignment or not with the subject matter. As a young artist in the 70’s when flatness reigned in the world of Painting I took pleasure in looking at the snap shots of photographers who documented their presence in the world. It was a humanist bent that led me to appreciate the work of Cartier-Bresson. He is a master of the manipulation of perspective as a tool to both submit his subjects to perspective and then liberate them from its hold at the last minute so to speak. The perspectival effect was either achieved through the converging lines of architecture receding or with similar objects each being smaller in scale. In this photo he used both:

The perspective is created both by the receding barrier and the scale of the two men in proportion to each other. One wonders how different the image would be if the man closeup would be looking through a hole at what I presume to be a construction site. The side of his face is parallel to the picture plane of the camera putting him in the photos structure, but his looking away is an escape from the structure of the perspective to something outside the snapshot.

Eggleston is another photographer hypersensitive to the picture plane. Whereas Cartier-Bresson is using the diagonals Eggleston often uses the parallel picture plane as an inert underlying structure on which to hang some other visual strategies. In this picture the trash cans hang like two barbells supported by the food stand. It is a closed system except for the soft candy hues of the stand and their evocation of a warm summer day which like the gaze of the man in the Cartier-Bresson photo is an emotional release.

William Eggleston


Podlesnik compresses the space with the same perspectival tools but squeezes the human presence almost completely out of the scene for the most part with no escape, no hope for empathy for the human condition. The suburban/urban space he describes seems drawn from the non-spaces of industrial parks, parking garages, motels off of the highway. But the nihilist aesthetic is so powerful they could just as well be anywhere in the hands of Podlesnik. Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston started us down the route away from the monument, the easily recognizable. Poldesnik takes us ever further afar to the edge of the void with the places almost unrecognizable. But there is a surprisingly unexpected release in all his images but not in the subject matter of the photo: the things he describes are often represented with the marks ,structure and textures of abstract painting. Sometimes we see the influence of minimalism at other times that of postmodern provisionalist painting as defined by Raphael Rubinstein a style of painting shown several years ago in a show at MoMA entitled “Forever Now”.

Mary Heilmann


Can’t get there from here? Just at the moment where Podlesnik seems to abandon the here and now and “the place” seems to be lost in an existential dead end, the viewer is transported by a kind of transcendence into the language of painting. It might be considered in computer parlance as hypertextual the simultaneity provided by the computer in our modern life where one image suggests another.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

As good as it gets on the internet (Or the Three Penny Author)

I put my blogposts on Medium, a site that promotes writing on the web. My writing rarely gets any feedback as adjudged from the dearth of what Medium refers to as “claps”( I just got one for an article on Jed Perl). They offer some remuneration as readers pay a fee for access to the site. Last month I got an email that 3 cents($.03) had been deposited in my savings account from all the voluminous reading of my blogs. I really don’t despair anymore at the paucity of interest on Medium. I get emails from them touting what they consider to be the hottest submissions that are for the most part pulp stories of unsolved murders that have no real thinking going on, let alone narrative style.

I recently got sucked into another site called Academia that distributes scholarly papers. As an enticement to join they said my name is getting mentioned on their site. The only way to find out who mentioned me is by joining them for around $100 a year. (Linkdin uses the same trick where they say someone is talking about you, but again you have to pay  to find out) When I finally gave in and joined, the “mention” that they half-described was nowhere to be found.  There have been other mentions since that I vaguely recall as authentic but they tend to be chaotically strung together obscuring any real sense of where the mentions were made. They do reach out to people I have mentioned in my articles toauthenticate my referencing them. My blogs are not formatted academically but they have been disseminated by the site to numerous individuals who are often associated with universities worldwide as resident scholars, students or alums. Since my blogs are for the most part illustrated, I hope the recipients are finding them at least visually entertaining.

Twitter is all about power and the participants obviously love to wield it. Interactions with the famous can happen but they are for the most part short lived. You might be flattered to find your tweet acknowledged but it is never for interaction with the Pulitzer prize winning critic Jerry Saltz. I had sent him a rough draft of my self-published book on Drawing and Painting to New York magazine offices where he is on the staff. A week later I found him describing one of the exercises in his own words but with an illustration he could have only taken from the copy I sent him as the source of the image was rather obscure. I sent him a message asking him about the rip-off and he replied with cryptic .  He never acknowledged that I was the source of the exercise. He got 55 likes. Why did he bother to reprint what I wrote? With one hand he showed what I had written to his followers all of whom thought it was interesting but with the other hand made sure I did not get credit for it. It hurt and I think that was his intention. I think my hope was for the much vaunted and desired “retweet”, so important that often tweeters will say that a retweet does not represent an endorsement.  If he wasn’t interested in power then he might have just given the book a tweet. I would have sold a few copies and that would be the end of it. But that would mean I am piggybacking on the precious reputation he has so assiduously built on and cultivated over a lifetime. That reputation has monetary value.

I had a rather pleasant exchange with Blake Gopnik, a propos his recently published “Warhol”, where he engaged me in a dialog about what I had written on Warhol which he found very interesting but wrong. It was a quirky linking on my part of Warhol to Flannery O’Connor due to their shared umbrella of nihilism. Nihilism is sort of a dog whistle that you are clearly anti-humanist and he rejected that Warhol was a nihilist. And that the shared religiosity of Warhol and O’Conner was bogus as Warhol’s connection to his religion was rather shaky. Maybe he at least gave me the time of day as I knew from the horse’s mouth that Philip Pearlstein was Warhol’s roommate at Carnegie-Mellon. The accessibility he provided me by  answering my questions was an opportunity to show that he was the expert and that I should buy the expert’s book to have the definitive answer on Warholiana. He is promoting his book. That’s all. Nothing wrong with that. I was able to extend the discussion to his opinions on Koons whose artistic value is based on what Gopnik calls “esthetic agnosia” and the exchange ended there.

Facebook is folksy in comparison to the ego flaunting/flouting on Twitter. Twitter with its message limit forces you to hone your message whereas on FB you can ramble on. Topics are  mostly about family events and the Peaceable Kingdom where Lions get along with baboons and the endless casts of clever cats and more cats. If I get sporadic feedback on Twitter (as indicated by the stats)I am sure to get lots of likes on FB. I am sure this folksy image is  cultivated by the managers. The world of twitter discussions are short lived storms and then subside and can’t be revived. Maybe you leave a mark on your interlocutor or not. Things are more relaxed on FB. I recently posted for the hell of it an image of a painting I had done in NC years ago that ended up in the Weatherspoon Museum. It created some interest from students at UNC-Greensboro and some sincerely thoughtful comments from people who follow my work. I tried to flip the conversation to my book on drawing and painting in the hope of maybe selling a copy. FB is not a platform for forcing anything on anyone. We are just nice folks with an opportunity to celebrate Mother’s Day. It is not about making a profit except for FB. I didn’t bring up the book again. I flipped to my Amazon stats page and there was no sign of anything sold. Just some page views that have little monetary value.

It was the philosopher Rene Girard who talked about the magic of the “like” button. It offers us the illusion that we are all on the same (FB) page. It engenders a kind of harmony an often false sense of agreement. I think it is the power of the retweet that makes Twitter different in that our power on Twitter is based on your number of followers and to be retweeted by someone with numerous followers is inherently valuable as it gets you out of the bubble of your limited followers. I notice the editor of Hyperallergic is parsimonious with his retweets. I got one once when he retweeted an article he pretended to show interest in publishing and when I threw in the towel and put it on my blog he felt he could at least give me the imprimatur of his retweet. Never again, even though be follows me.

That brings up the existence of the comments section provided by many online magazines where I first interacted with the Hyperallergic editor who leaves the comment section open to anyone. Comment is often allowed only to buyers of a subscription. The monetization of the web is continuing apace. More and more sites not only now limit comments but open access to certain articles only to subscribers. If it doesn’t slowdown the number of readers and in fact increases them then there is nothing to stop it. But the comment sections have been my bread and butter starting with Hyperallergic. It was there that I made my first impact on the web commentariat. I read an article by John Yau, a well-known critic/poet from the days of hard copy. It described a phenomenon of a certain bland imitative abstraction that was being shown in NYC.  It was going for big bucks and he was not a fan. Based on the images he supplied I got on a tangential rant that became a blogpost with a label for the work: “Zombie Abstraction”. I linked it to the comment section for the Yau article and that was that. Four months later an article by Walter Robinson appeared in another online magazine referring to the same sort of painting as Zombie Formalism. Its publication must have appeared on the comment section of Hyperallergic. I pointed out in a back and forth exchange with Hrag Vartanian the publisher in  the comment section that it was I who first used Zombie to describe work of that ilk. Vartanian at Hyperallergic came to my defense although somewhat dismissively saying that zombie was in the air and that it was inevitable someone would use the moniker. At a later date Raphael Rubinstein in an article in “Art in America” mentioned me as the first to use the term. I heard from a blogger who is closer to the NY art scene that Robinson and Rubinstein are friends and that Robinson at the time was furious at the unwillingness of his friend to give him credit for first inventing the term. I must admit that if someone with the notoriety of Robinson had not written about the New York abstraction that I referred to, then my article would have remained insignificant. Such is the case with my article on “shake and bake” abstraction. I think the label is a clever one and the points I made are valuable but it will never achieve the same notoriety. As for ZF I did make the tour of online art writers who wrote about ZF. If they had a comment section or email I tried to convince them to include my name as the inventor of the moniker. Most agreed seeing the evidence from Hyperallergic to make the change. Saltz who was a major disseminator of the term with his “Zombies on the Walls” that appeared on the online version of New York Magazine noticeably did not. Noah Dillon of did make the change. My blog comes up on the first page of a google search for Zombie Formalism.

There is a pleasurable sense of isolation of being alone on the mountain top associated with blogging that can get one into trouble at times. It is probably a pleasure in getting things right in so far as you are not a gun for hire and write for yourself. Something as well about the facility of word processing that allows for one to get carried away by precision to such a degree one becomes oblivious to one’s audience. I write on my computer in solitude. One paints that way. It is the nature of the profession. I have had a knack for reinventing myself or at least respecting the issues that my painting represents to me and following their lead. In retrospect a lot of issues that I struggled with were not shared by collectors. I find critics have always been ready to chime in on the ideas that motivated my work. But that only reinforced my solitude and willingness to follow my intuition. Recently, this introspection backfired when I wrote about a hurtful experience I had with a New Yok coop gallery that with one hand accepted my work for a Summer group show and with the other upon the delivery of the work asked me to remove it from the show. No one ever gave me a reason for it. There was a smugness from the people I talked with on the phone that such a work would not be allowed to hang in the show. I could understand how it got in the show. The curator was a color field painter. In a desperate attempt to find some logic to it I made the farfetched claim that it was due to the gallery members who based on my research were fairly traditional artists sharing the views of a conservative(not politically) art critic whose work I actually admire. When the critic and his friends failed to show any interest in my drawing and painting book it dawned on me at the height of obtuseness I had probably rubbed him the wrong way. And even more appalling it took me a whole year to delete the presumably offending blog post. I was most likely so in love with my own words alone there at the computer at 6am when I do most of my writing that I let it stand published on my blog for this long.  To use an oft used expression: I cut off my nose to spite my face.

Casting a net into the net does bring in some interesting catches from well-known artists and critics who stumble across my writing, that would only happen off the web if I were published in respected journals. They have enjoyed my invective and in the case of one artist/critic shared some choice gossip about a contemporary artist that I had written about and I went on to repeat it on blog and then was asked by the source to delete as being too personal. What do I hope to achieve by all this blogging and interacting with the denizens of the web? On the one hand one creates a narcissistic self-referential bubble that only serves to reinforce a kind of clarity about one’s inner life but adds only to further isolation. On the other hand, there is a clear sense of chumming for fish. Throw something out on the water to attract some activity in the hope of catching a bigger fish. Meantime the ground of all this ranting and raving (there is some cogent thinking I hope) is my painting. It is still premised on being in the “white cube” the stage where the viewer and the work can interact and where both can be transformed. It is still primitive and is reminiscent of a believer in a church(a religious metaphor I used once on twitter that brought out the ire in an atheistic art critic with lots of followers) yet  miles away from the tumult on the net where everybody and their uncle pretends to know the status quo of the art world and the future. We all pretend to be omniscient. It was an early thinker of the internet Clay Shirky, who referred to this mass internet phenomena in his book “Here Comes Everybody”. But as I have pointed out (and my son Gabriel wrote his PhD thesis on this topic) there is still a power structure that those who have achieved notoriety outside the internet can enforce via a hierarchy of power built into websites on the internet. Trying to break into that hierarchy probably is the goal of my blogging. But as I have pointed out above there are always those who will with pleasure remind you of your irrelevance, where exactly you are situated in the pecking order.

I just got (Feb 20, 2021)blocked on twitter by the above mentioned Hraj of Hyperallergic for grousing about the newly imposed cost of commenting on his site. I used the word paywall that he said was the wrong word to use for paying for comments. It was the use of the wrong word that upset him. This obsession with language usage bespeaks a sort of priestly class that loves to control the meaning of words and penalizes misuse. He did not comment on my complaint about paying for commenting but using "paywall"  that he insisted only applies to content. So much gratitude for following his site for 8 years. But it did get a lot of hits, although due to his blockage I cannot any longer access his comments.  I thought of Freud's statement about the narcissism of minor distinctions but realize that if you play with it a bit you come up with a narcissist of minor distinction that describes Mr Vartanian. In regards to the distinction between the homespun folkiness of FB v.s. Twitter, Vartanian belied his understanding of the power-laden nature of Twitter when in his final au revoir he told me to go back to FB.

This mean spirited type seems to thrive on the internet. I recently posted one of my older blogs on the above mentioned, that many readers had enjoyed over the years. Not a great philosophical text but at heart a tender reminiscence of friends and conversation. It brought out a "scholar" who dismissed it as unworthy of comment. No dialog. What could have been a nice exchange was stopped in its tracks. He has continued to accuse me of trying to get the de Kooning I wrote about to submit to labels. It made me reread what I wrote and I am reassured that is was not an easy task and that I kept the concepts  grounded in the painting I chose to write about. 

I will never forget the anecdote Addison Parks told me about the day he introduced his wife to his mentor Leon Polk Smith. Throughout the meeting, Leon ignored her. As the meeting came to an end, Addison pointed out his rudeness. He told him "if you are not nice you are nothing".  It seems that everyone would rather be the lawyer pouncing on  your slipups in word usage. My demeanor is just show appreciation for what comes your way and spread the word. 

Recently, Jerry Saltz commented on a comment I made on a tweet where he posted a photo of himself kneeling in awe in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait at the Madison/Frick. It was a mixed "???!!!" but seemed to concur with what I said as did numerous followers. Here is what I said: "He does not lose the veneer of infinite detail as you move closer. It never becomes just paint." It had more than 5000 impressions. Now that is when Twitter works.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Artists without faces. Or what do you hang your hat on? Jean Gabin, Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz and John Currin.

                         Artists without faces.
               Or what do you hang your hat on?
          Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz and John Currin.


Jean Gabin:"We had faces then"

"We had faces then." Words that describe the Hollywood actors of Gabin’s era: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to name a few. What does it mean to have a face? A sense of fate etched into the face, when you accept the persona which is one part what life casts across your bow and the other part  how you deal with it. Maybe grounded in the singularity of Christ’s body and face on the cross as he fulfills his unique destiny/apotheosis in a discrete moment in time. Or the heroes and heroines of the Iliad born to families that already doom them to a fate beyond their control. Does not apply to Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, who still looks like to me the pre-adolescent he was one in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. Too much a baby face to my taste for his gangster roles and Johnny Depp who always intrigued me with his performances in “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands” is not growing old gracefully. Unlike Gabin he won’t find a role  for an aging personality that Gabin created in “The Dominici Affair”. Nor will Jim Carrey transcend his iconic roles in “The Truman Show” and “The Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”.  In this postmodern age the self is dischargeable, it carries not burden of debt;  it has no beginning, middle and end. Things seem to bog down in the middle. We are more Buddhistic now! Or transcendental meditators like Carrey. …In our culture if our image is no longer pretty to the public then we had rather euthanize ourselves than seem less than perfect. OK, acting is a job and your face is what you sell. But there seems to be a way that some careers transcend that purely mercenary definition. Their way of persisting to the bitter end.
Grant and Bergman

 From Wikipedia on Dietrich:

Marie Magdalene "Marlene" Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer. Throughout her long career, which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s, she continually reinvented herself. 

It might be that Hollywood no longer likes it characters to age (obviously Weinstein, the gatekeeper, liked his women young) or is it so pervasive that our society cannot accept the wisdom that comes with age. The notion of the self consistently prevailing over or outwitting  death has disappeared in our throw away culture.

                                   Belmondo did his own stunts barely surviving them

What to hang your hat on?  Nothingness?  This strange sort of erasure has oozed into the painting world. Three cases in point: Dana Schutz, Cecily Brown and John Currin.

When I wrote my seminal piece on “Zombie Formalism” I started the essay discussing some philosophical ideas that are current in academia that may be the underpinning of this new notion of self-erasure:

“In the first few pages of Santiago Zabala’s  “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy”, there are incessant quotes and statements about how Tugendhat and other 20th c philosophers overcame the subject/object fallacy of Western metaphysics.  First Charles Taylor in a heading states: “Tugendhat is very certain of the kind of construal of self-consciousness he cannot accept. He calls it the subject-object model, and its basic error is to construe consciousness as a relation to an object.”  The author in the first paragraph goes on to quote Gadamer: ”….the subject as starting point, just as orientation to the object, is contested by making the intersubjective communication in language the new universal system of reference.” A few paragraphs later he says:”The impossibility of the mental eye means the end of any pure subjectivity, the end of Cartesian subjectivity, which implies that objects can be seen “objectively” or “scientifically”.”

This is the end of the central role played by the Socratic notion of knowing thyself. Further along in the essay I write:

“The counterattack on this sort of male gaze in 20th century philosophy is the subject of Martin Jay’s “Downcast Eyes”. To make his point about the domination of the visual in our culture, his first paragraph uses a laundry list of words etymologically based in the visual. In the first two sentences he succeeds in using: glance, demonstrate, vigilantly, keeping an eye out, illuminating insight and mirroring.”

The dethroning of the male gaze.

“And, of course, it got extended to the objectifying gaze, which was found most obviously in the male ego, responsible for all that was wrong with the world from slavery, sexism to the despoliation of the environment.”


What struck me about Dana Schutz at her Boston ICA show beyond the obvious hip ”in your face” cartoony funk of the brush stroke was the un-thought out color palette. It seemed to arise out of a beginner’s paint kit of ochres and umbers with a few primary colors thrown in as spice. There was no self-doubt or even a bow to the exploration of 20thc color's ability to move the viewer. It seemed to come right out of the tube. I pointed out in my Schutz essay how in Kirchner and Beckman, who could be considered precedents of Schutz, set off the human gaze against the acid color as in  Kirchner's case or with aggressive cubism as in Beckmann’s, that both try to dissolve it. Instead of seeing the erasure or distortion of the face as a fault or lack maybe it is just the final exit of a Shakespearean/Socratic/Christian self-consciousness. The self-consciousness that arises out of the inevitability of sin or as one sees in the American Westerns the plodding perseverance of the actor who in spite of the burden of sin tries to do good and in the end can etch something substantial into the human gaze.
Currin's cloning 

But we are postmodern. We gain our identities by being part of the group/herd or experiencing no separation between the mass media and the self. Hence the cartoon faces in Schutz’s work. Currin has faces, indeed, but with his ironic gaze deconstructs the vanity of women who imagine themselves to be unique fashion plates into generic good looks. Warhol bequeaths the face to the replicability of the silk screen. But still with the recognizability of the movie star or politician of the larger culture. The persona that still might seduce us with the magic of a Dietrich or of a Garbo is in the clammy hands of Currin devoid of magic, never star quality but intentionally cloned. The snark of a scientist looking at the world through a microscope, the human entity now subject to the replication of a virus.

Cecilly Brown adds her physical presence to her work

The best abstraction acknowledges a self that is not necessarily synonymous with the human face yet tries to achieve the steadiness of a gaze constantly undercut by the psychological and bodily drives. Gorky, Pollock, Rothko had fragile mastery of those underlying forces. Our contemporary practitioner of abstract art Cecily Brown suffers from what Baxandall perceived to be the weakness of so much late 19th c Realism. It was not grounded in the self but was merely descriptive of the current social world. The artists of the Salon painted identifiable landscapes not their perception of them. Brown thinks herself to be an abstract painter who paints abstractions in the tradition of Pollock and de Kooning but like Schutz she never thought twice about the dynamics of color and the tension of flattened space. There is no hovering of the neural matrix over the void that one finds in Pollock, the angst of Rothko knowing his colors hide the reality of one’s nothingness or Gorky’s incredible synthesis of the languages of psychology(surrealism)  and Cubism that tear at each other like angry cats. With Brown it is not zombie formalism but flaccid “Descriptive Abstraction” similar to the dead end of late Salon figuration of the 19thc. All great abstraction takes a bow to Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" with its violent flattening of space and his outrageous imposition of his portrait on the women.I am reminded of  a discussion I had with Al Held of a portrait that Matisse did of his wife that he so much admired. A compression of foreground and background that releases an explosion of energy. 

I once imagined a day when the earthy angst of the early work of Lester Johnson would matter more to our culture than what Blake Gopnik sees as the radicality of a Warhol. Yes! radical in that it uproots the human presence from any authentic meaning on earth. Once pulled away from the body and inserted into the matrix of mass media, it will never be radical in the true sense of the word again. It will roll on and on like tumbleweed over the modern desert. Still waiting for someone to create a radical art that is faithful to its real definition  that it  is “rooted” in the human presence.

Otherwise what is there to hang your hat on.

if you are interested in learning more of my ideas on art get my book on Drawing and Painting