Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ideas Matter: The 1929 Davos Debate and Modern Art

The breaking away of Heidegger from his mentor Husserl's thinking is often discussed in histories of Heidegger's thought as a momentous event not just for Heidegger's evolution as a thinker but for European philosophy . What was he breaking away from and why was often unclear to me? I understood the role of Dasein in "Being and Time", that notion of lived space among others that is a priori to consciousness. I had already suspected that Husserl's eidetic reduction was an important idea shaping cognitive science. Eidetic reduction is a sort of universal construct  whereby outside reality is reduced to pure consciousness irrespective of time and space. It is a concept based on a transcendental notion of consciousness in the tradition of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum. Go for a hearing test and you will experience I believe this reduction in its essence. Pure tones are submitted to you in an isolation booth.Your inability to detect any of them in a full range of possible tones will indicate the health of your hearing.

Recently I read  "A Parting of the Ways" by Michael Friedman, that focuses on the famous Davos debate between Heidegger and Cassirer in 1929 and its relationship to the subsequent split in philosophy between logical positivism and existentialism. One paragraph brought into focus the abyss between Heidegger and Husserl, and clarified for me once and for all the difference between these two thinkers and in particular its possible relation of these ideas to the painting of Rothko and Hofmann.

Here is an extract from that paragraph: "Similarly, we can grasp the general natures of intuitively presented colors or tones and thereby establish  a priori "eidetic sciences" of the structures of "color space" or "tone space". And by the same method in phenomenology, we can grasp the general nature of intuitively presented psychological phenomena and thereby establish the a priori "eidetic science" of "pure consciousness....In this way, moreover, we can establish  a special and unique a priori science(which, in particular, is non-mathematical)- a science that can serve as the foundation for all other a priori sciences..."

When I read "color space" both Hofmann and Rothko's work came to mind: the reduction of color to pure hues and its subsequent extraction of those colors from the lived space of the human life. I had dealt with this distinction in the blog:"The Humpty Dumpty effect" where the breakdown of the lived world into cognitive parts could not be put back together again. The work of these two artists have the  foundational structure of science. But Heidegger asks: what about the historical nature of mankind, both its finitude and its insertion in an historical epoch that limits or expands its sense of self. In other words: its temporality. What is brought into question by temporality is the the purity of human consciousness. Is our humanity only understood by a hearing test? Of course our lived reality is enhanced if we can invent instruments based on our scientific knowledge of hearing. But what happens when all notions of being human are taking place in a laboratory? If we consider first our bodily existence and its insertion in what Heidegger calls the "always already" of the world around us, we can see it precedes consciousness. We are thrown into reality in a time and place that is beyond our control. Heidegger's is a darker picture and more tragic picture of human existence than that of Husserl.

If Husserl gets Hofmann and Rothko in the world of art, who does Heidegger get? Without a doubt it is Giacometti. His figures stride blindly with an existential force that is bigger than their consciousness. They are shaped by the space around them and his drawings sculpt out a shared space of the seer and the seen. Permeating all his work is an overall anxiety that recalls Heidegger saturated Sartre's famous saying that "Hell is the other".

The third character that makes up the trio discussed in depth in Friedman's book is Rudolf Carnap. Although he was not a presenter at Davos he interacted with the participants and went on to an illustrious academic career as a "logical positivist" and a member of the Vienna Circle. He had some sympathy for the thinking of Heidegger in contrast to Cassirer only in so far as it was anti-idealistic. Except for Cassirer there was a drive among this trio to extract philosophy from its ground in a higher truth. But that sympathy ended there. Carnap had no tolerance for Heidegger's proclamation that "Nothing nothings". For him it was illogical and unprovable.

The politics of Germany brought Cassirer and Carnap to the United States and left the right wing Heidegger alone in Europe as its most famous philosopher.  The artists and architects of the Bauhaus such as Gropius and Albers came as well.  Friedman states that the underlying theme of this group and of Carnap as well was anti-individualistic and socialist. They found work readily in American Universities with Cassirer and Albers going to Yale and Carnap and Gropius teaching at Harvard. Carnap was a fan of the Bauhaus ideas of an architecture that no longer built monuments to the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie  but buildings that  managed mass society. Form as social function in architecture was their mantra.

Josef Albers

This notion of the importance of thinking as grounded in the group not the individual seems to me to favor a kind of abstraction that achieves its realization only as an integration of the part into the whole. This combined with the locus of the human consciousness in the cognitive v.s. being in the world handed the human individual meaning over to its integration into social function

Artists that fit the thinking of Carnap would of course be his fellow emigrant from Germany Bauhaus educated Albers and the Austrian sculptor with whom I studied, Erwin Hauer.

Erwin Hauer
Of course the 80's and 90's would bring to prominence the ideas of the post modernists such as Derrida, Foucault and de Man, all of whom were influenced by Heidegger's notions of deconstruction.Many of them found positions in American Universities the most famous being de Man at Yale. But that is another story for another blog post.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Schutz at the ICA Boston

Around the time I was trying to sort out the clutter of paintings qua sculpture at MassMoCA for a blog post, I received a self-published book from the gallery owner, Paul Rodgers, on his theories of the origins of 20th Modernism. Looming large in his story of the Genesis of the Modern is Barnett Newman. Recently, as I started to put together a critique of Dana Schutz’s work at the Boston ICA, the artist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe emailed me an article that he published in a collection of essays called “Contemporary Visual Culture and the Sublime” published by “Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies”. He had been sent my article on the end of Zombie Formalism by the artist Chris Haub, and reached out to me to share what he thought was the complementarity of our ideas on the state of contemporary art.  In Gilbert-Rolfe’s essay, Newman also comes across as an important figure in establishing the metaphysics of Modernism. Newman had never been for me a conscious influence on my painting nor for that matter someone I was excited about. I do recall the painter Don Shambroom being an enthusiast of his work. Don is a figurative painter, although lately his work has shown a more conceptual strain. That has not stopped him from often providing some of the best commentary on Abstraction of any painter I know and on my work in particular. He remarked at the time on how a Newman painting could dominate the gallery space and in so doing affect powerfully the consciousness of the viewer.  Like Rothko there is a religious import that sees the work of art as creating an architectural space similar to a chapel.


The journal in which Gilbert-Rolfe wrote his essay contains fifteen essays by other writers on the Sublime and lack thereof in contemporary art. Much of Gilbert-Rolfe’s essay deals with the structure of the art world: artists, gallerists and museums that all seem to be working under the aegis of a seamless Hegelian structure where to quote the essay “painting is the readable part of a system and causes no bodily surprises.”  This stood me in good stead when I was perplexed over any justification for the work of Dana Schutz being given a show at the Boston ICA. Until the brouhaha over her painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial I had not heard of her work. The over-explained show at the ICA presents her as having been an important presence in the art world for quite some time. Gilbert-Rolfe’s essay gave me a handle on the work. He says: “Inside the museum what the work must be about is closely controlled. “ “Hegel is invoked but there is little dialectical contradiction to be seen.”

Each painting is given an extensive explanation as to its message. Typically, large shows like this provide the viewer with a long description at the beginning and maybe one at the end but rarely does each painting get such in depth analysis. Many of the paintings deal with social conflict, which of course was the story behind the Emmett Till piece not exhibited here. However, to lean on Gilbert-Rolfe’s citation from above, ”... there is little dialectical contradiction to be seen.” There are no ”bodily surprises.” There is an attempt to express the impact of conflict via a cubistic language that breaks up the picture plane but that is it. Unlike a great artist like De Kooning there is no pushing of cubism into a new territory. Here is a person with no doubt, no second thoughts as to the efficaciousness  of her work to convey its intended meaning.  The colors are thinly applied with no admixture. The often effaced faces deny the viewer an extra level of meaning that might be grounded in private experience. In one of the explanatory panels, references are made to Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. That painting of course functions on several levels where in fact there are faces that convey the personal horror of it all. Could it be that her view of mankind is so dictated by social media in which the system is so much larger than the individual as to render any part/whole dynamic irrelevant. There is in most every painting a cubistic whole implying a sort of topsy-turvy worldview but the cartoony faces give no inkling of an inner life. I guess I get into murky waters when I fault her for what may be the meaning of the individual faces that sag or are effaced. It is Dasein without the Da. Mediated faces that have lost their immediacy. Is this the message of the show: in our modern world there is “No dialectical contradiction”?
Artists like Ernst Kirchner or Max Beckmann, who seem to be her antecedents, despite the overall cubistic disarray ground their paintings in the here and now. In the case of Kirchner you have the strange colors distorting the faces that provide the shiver of existential angst. In Beckmann the very non-generic faces seem borrowed from the intensely focused portraits of August Sanders. In Schutz I see this lack of grounding in specificity as either a cognitive defect or the outcome of contemporary fatuousness that gets its sense of the real from Facebook.

Schutz is the “readable part of the system and causes no bodily surprise.” One might think that painting would retain its role in society as a locus of intense emotional and metaphysical surprises that still matter to the individual in a society where we all in some way have a role of supporting  highly efficient social functioning. But in this show the emptiness of social functioning has leaked its way into the consciousness of Schutz. No wonder the Black community protested her use of the photo of Emmett Till. Here was in an iconic image of an event that represents the Black’s struggle against the violence of Jim Crow and in no way could be dealt with effectively with the squishy visual language of Dana Schutz.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Show goes on. Schnabel (fils) Walter Robinson and the end of Zombie Formalism

It had all become a wonderfully seamless merger of theory and the art it purported to define. Modernism divided by modernism, became postmodern, became Zombie Formalism. The last remnant of self-consciousness was squeezed out. The image was often produced by machines or was so redundant of past Modernism, any notions of the authority or authenticity of the creator had exited the site of creation. Heidegger’s "monstrous philosophical site", where he crosses out Being (sous rature) bringing an end to ontology or at most establishing a weak ontology, had worked its way into the creative process of contemporary artists. Has Simone Weil’s cyclical trope of history hit the nadir of meaninglessness and instead of bouncing in another direction became an intensification of itself?This aesthetic nothing is not totally nothing as the market gives it significant monetary value. The correlation between such art and an economy built on zero interest rates was hard to ignore. Calculating bankers needed to launder some of their gains from the phony stock market into Culture, but the avant-garde instead of providing the usual opportunity for the bankers to slum or dabble with artists besotted of Freud or Jung was now populated by artists as savvy in their business acumen as the bankers themselves. The artists just printed more paintings on their inkjet printers to be bought up by the stockbrokers who had gotten rich on the Federal Reserve's money printing. The dialectic of history provided no zigzag, no way out just more zombification ad infinitum.
Mark Grotjahn
Frank Stella
This state of affairs was foretold in the early work of Frank Stella. His work was not built out of the cosmic gestures of the Jungian Pollock or the labor of the working class of de Kooning but out of color aid packs and bad geometry. Whereas Stella felt some remorse over putting painting into such a straight jacket and has spent the rest of his career paying homage to the Italian Baroque, the Zombie Formalists, Guyton, Grotjahn, Morris et. alia look like early Stella. They saw the scission his palette provided from flesh, blood and the inner life as a good ground upon which to build their bloodless zombie edifice. It did not refer back to a lived world but to the artifice of graphic design.

Jasper Johns by Karsh
Modernism was the last breath of authoritative self-consciousness grounded in Science, the individual as capable of solid perceptions of the Real. When one reads that Husserl’s eidetic reduction seizes reality as it is captured by the senses, one understands that this is what Rothko did. I was reminded of his spiritual intensity in Paul Rodgers “the Modern Aesthetic” which sees Modernism as an ever-revivified battle against the Prussian state and its reincarnations. For sure the scientific community achieved its goals with a group effort but judging from the mid century portraits of greatness by Yousef Karsh, the consciousness of the truth was a private affair. So here is a definition you can take home: zombie modernism is modernism without the authoritative stance of self-consciousness. There is no one home.
Jennifer Guidi
So when I learned that Grotjahn’s wife, Jennifer Guidi was cranking out sentimental paintings swimming in sunset colors and that the same collectors of Zombie art could not get enough of them, I was startled. Is this the long awaited bounce? Is all the sentiment excised from Zombie Formalism coming back to start the new zag to zombies zig? Granted the “zombie stance” if it were a yoga pose would be an impossible pose to hold. It requires a coolness and poise lest even an iota of emotion leaks in. You would have to stop breathing. Grotjahn started to drip a little paint on his geometry but that may have expressed an indifference to any remnant of authority in his work. But it may have been the crack in the dam. Are the images of Guidi ironic?  Are these just painterly renditions of Koons. 
Walter Robinson
The truth may lie in a show of Walter Robinson‘s painting curated by Vito Schnabel in Switzerland. Vito is the scion of the Schnabel family, founded by papa Julian. Robinson, the presumed inventor of the label of Zombie Formalism (although I came up with the label several months earlier as Zombie abstraction) and a denizen of New York’s art ghetto whom artist/art critic Charles Giuliano described as a “known grifter and blowhard” in an article in “Berkshire Fine Arts”, has produced a body of work which to my eye purports to be a painterly version of Lichtenstein’s pop oeuvre.  An article in Blouin Fine Arts pushes it as the glorification of “appetite” in American culture. I get it: remove the cool veneer of the billboard or the movie poster and replace it with the juicy strokes of Robinson and you reveal the appetitive underbelly of American society. Julian’s work was resurrected as provisional in the new millennium by Raphael Rubinstein from its 80’s identity as neo-expression. Schnabel’s art like Robinson’s always needs some sort of label. The Schnabel label unlike LV won't cut it by itself. Pull off the label and the work looks like shit.

On occasion I come across articles about the New York Federal Reserve’s involvement in money printing or as they call it: quantitative easing. It appears they don’t know what the longterm effect is: they are just winging it. It has created a bubble that is going to burst, that has enriched the 1% at the expense of Main St. I think you could say the same thing about the artistic culture of New York.  If Schnabel pere et fils , Walter Robinson and now Jennifer Guidi are what we must bow down  to as the culture of choice by New York’s collectors then there is no bounce nor an intensification of nihilism, just an untidy, murky pool of schlock. Is this a bubble ready to burst?  Or maybe just a backup of primordial sludge that will give rise to a new art?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Paul Rodgers: "Modern Aesthetic"

Some years ago I wrote about an historical representation of Coney Island at the Brooklyn Museum of Art together with a performance at BAM of “The Glory of the World” on the life of Thomas Merton. Since both were attended by me back to back the same day, my mind was bothered to find a correlation between what appeared at first glance to be two incommensurable events randomly experienced side by side. The first connection came to the surface with the recollection of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poems: ”The Coney Island of the Mind”. The title I subsequently learned was extracted from a book by Henry Miller; a rather superficial connection at face value of the Brooklynite Miller with the Brooklyn location of Coney Island and the theatrical performance taking place in Brooklyn. I mistakenly thought that the use of Miller’s phrase by Ferlinghetti embodied a positive correlation between his Miller’s consciousness and Coney Island, an embrace of the Barnum and Bailey aspect of the American experience: But the paragraph from which the phrase is taken, if read in full, showed Miller’s horror that our mind could be colonized by so much glitz and honky tonk. I had read a good deal of Miller in college and found his books a healthy romantic antidote to the hard nosed practicality of American academia and in particular the rank careerism of graduate school. Miller found a soulfullness in the squalor of Depression era Paris, which, somehow, was missing in the harsh workaday pragmatic culture of New York City. Ultimately, it was Miller’s European connection  that brought the play and Coney Island in some cognitive proximity. Thomas Merton’s father, an artist, had run away from America to France to pursue his artistic ambitions and it is where Merton grew up. I believe Merton’s conversion to Catholicism, was a return to Europe as a metaphysical realm. Miller was also after a transcendental meaning to his life that he found in sexuality: a private Eros to counteract the mass display of the erotic of Coney Island. Strangely enough “The Glory of the World” placed Merton’s inner spiritual life  under constant assault by the mass Dionysian impulse of our contemporary culture that was the essence of the old Coney Island.
WeeGee photo of ConeyIsland

Suddenly, I am at the seashore and no recollection of the train stopping. Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard -- a Coney Island of the mind. The amusement shacks are running full blast, the shelves full of chinaware and dolls stuffed with straw and alarm clocks and spittoons. Over it all, in a muffled roar, comes the steady hiss and boom of the breakers. Behind the pasteboard street front, the breakers are plowing up the night with luminous argent teeth. In the oceanic night, Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard.
Everything is sliding and crumbling. Everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters. Everything is a lie, a fake, pasteboard. Everything is made of nuts and bolts. The monarch of the mind is a monkey wrench, sovereign pasteboard power.(Henry Miller)

In researching Miller I found a reference to his admiration for Spengler’s "Decline of the West". Spengler’s gloom and doom seems to hover around the periphery of his vision of Coney Island.

James Turrell
Last weekend on the occasion of the birthday of my daughter, who lives in the Berkshires, we went to Mass MoCA. My son who accompanied us wanted a space where his son could run around and be entertained.  My request to go to the Clark Institute would not have satisfied that requirement as its solemnity would have weighed too heavily on a rambunctious two year old. Indeed, it turned out to be a great place for a toddler,  a Coney Island of Contemporary arts.  Every show seemed to dissolve the space between the self and the masses who were spending their Sunday there.  Whether it is Turrell’s illuminated projections of Rothko or Nick Cave’s enormous installation of lawn ornaments the message is the same(although the hidden images of guns in Cave’s work attempt a deeper message of racial violence that couldn’t quite subvert  the carnival of colors): the trip to a museum no longer provides an opportunity for meditation on works that open up inner realms of meaning but one of entertainment where the subject(viewer) and the object(art) are mediated into the same space. The number and variety of things to see are hard to keep track of, which creates the mood of a three-ring circus. Now that Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus is gone, MoCA and the White House fill in the void.
Author with grandson in Rauschenberg installation
A small show of Rauschenberg’s painted phone booths(shower stalls or convention kiosks?) actually looked kind of mid-century kitsch that is all the rage in contemporary design, a Laurie Anderson show I missed as well as a quasi-permanent exhibition of Anselm Kiefer that I also missed. There was a totally clever but fatuous exhibition of someone who went out to meet and photograph all her “friends” on FB; a photographer's pseudo-deep analysis playing F
acebook  media off of “face to face” media. What captured the essence of the dissolving of self and object was the collection of homemade instruments made by the late music professor at Bennington and his Students Gunnard Schonbeck. You could play them and somehow the cacophony of atonality and percussion created by random visitors playing the instruments resulted in a sort of avant-garde symphony. Unlike at the country fair there was no opportunity yet to make your own swirly painting. I find it interesting that much of the literature online written about the museum addresses attendance. The verdict is that the funky carney product does a good job of drawing the crowds.
Sarah Braman
The painting on show was more often painted sculpture but shown along side of straight painting so as to give the sense that the work transgressively could have gone either way from painting to sculpture or back again. One painting for example was made of corrugated metal that had arbitrary colors splashed on it. The metal’s nature, as being used in the physical world in construction yet being hung on the wall to be observed, had a deadening effect on this viewer, who wished to be transported by the painting but it repelled his gaze: A deadening of desire.  The deconstruction of painting somehow is ever resurrected as a valid pursuit with each new generation taking on the garb of the critical theory revolutionary. One piece, a long painted tunnel with its interior splashed with paint, was a painting outside/in. My grandson found it a lot of fun, but truth be told a tunnel of horrors at a carnival would be a more exciting experience.

Nick Cave
I can hear the critics, similar to those who left comments on my zombie formalism blog that I was just a fuddy-duddy, someone showing his age as the art world passes him by. The crowds seemed happy. I was especially happy at the brewpub strategically situated at the exit.

I had some hope for the future of painting when I received in the mail a self-published book by Paul Rodgers owner of the eponymous  gallery in Chelsea.  It is entitled “The Modern Aesthetic “. A visit to his exhibits of Marioni and Hantai in  Chelsea always provided a sympathetic respite from the contemporary scene and its grotesqueries. The book manifests how deeply he has thought about the role of painting in the contemporary scene and is ambitious ,to say the least, in its delineation of a path for Modernism starting with Gericault and ending with Hantai, with Courbet, Manet,  Newman, Rothko and Pollock along for the ride. He does a good job contextualizing the aforementioned artists into their navigation of the increasingly socialized power structures that dictate what can and cannot be experienced by the populace. The artist from Rodgers’ point of view is always in an adversarial stance in relation to society. Rodgers’ bias is toward the French manifestation of Modernism, which gained energy by challenging the rigid political structure of the French State. His commentary on Gericault’s “The Charging Chasseur” describes an artist attempting to isolate the experience of war in terms of the individual not of the group following the ideology of the leader: the raw terror of the horse and soldier in the midst of battle. His experience is defined by the role he has to play in battle but as something personally suffered. “The Raft of the Medusa” tells the same story of a group of individuals each in their own way dealing with the card that fate has handed them, probably led on some fantastical voyage by an ideological Ahab.

Courbet achieves the same goal of self-assertion of the private experience in challenging the structure of the Bourgeoisie, whether in “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” where he insists on his importance as a citizen or the magic of the countryside of his native land, which he claims as his terrain, his source emotionally, as much an origin as his famous, “The Origin of the World”.

Manet paints the public events where the rich and powerful  signaled their importance but turns these media events on their head to reveal that what is really going on socially is the buying and selling of flesh. This is something I commented on in the work of John Singer Sargent. The signaling of power and social rank was achieved by feigning the clothing and demeanor of social positions taken from the aristocracy prior to the modern era but in Sargent’s case they are not critiqued. I am not convinced that  Manet leads to Pollock, Newman, Rothko or Hantai but rather Warhol who is the artist of a ruling class already mediated by mass media.

Rodgers describes the triumvirate of Pollock, Rothko and Newman, as being in  rebellion against the status quo achieved by a turn inward toward the metaphysical ,which is attained in the case of Pollock via psychoanalysis. The origins of that metaphysical turn are, he believes, situated in Baudelaire’s description of a modern self, angst ridden and alone shorn of the spiritual depths of religion. He goes to great lengths to belittle Baudelaire’s admiration for Delacroix which is a grave mistake as the link from the 19thc to his 20thc artists is probably Delacroix not the poet Baudelaire who could paint in a realist style with political subject matter as in “Liberty Leading the People" but also in a more moody metaphysical style as in "The Death of Sardanapalus" .  It is an embodiment of the mood of boredom(l’ennui) so important to Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”. A later work “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”,  has an existential theme of decision that anticipates the angst ridden work of Abstract Expressionism. I would love to know what Rothko with his Jewish roots thought of this painting and Delacroix in general.
Delacroix "The Death of Sardanapalus"
Rodgers makes claims about the essentialist structure of Newman’s work. There is the accompanying contrasting to Mondrian whose work is correctly described as based more in a positivist scientific tradition where abstraction evolves out of observation of the real world. Like so much abstraction it has its sources in Husserl’s eidetic reductions where visual structures are isolated as they are experienced in the brain. This has lead to the kind of cognitive science ,where for example our notions of being vertical beings are shaped by a part of the brain dedicated to verticality or uprightness. Newman’s use of the vertical is not some essence existing beyond Plato’s cave in the empyrean. I think that it is just this connection with the eye/mind that makes Newman’s work such a powerful presence when experienced in a gallery. The lines on the canvas line up with the inner lines of our consciousness.

The long and winding road of Modernism culminates in the work of Hantai. I admit I was only vaguely cognizant of his work, so I had to take the gallerist’s words on Hantai’s process of painting as true and accurate.  The picture Rodgers paints of Hantai leads me to believe that Hantai’s painting might be seminal of much of late 20thc and early 21st century painting if there can be proved an influence on Ellsworth Kelley. Rodgers’ case of Pollock’s influence on Hantai is based on the notion that the physical relationship of Pollock to his canvas changes when he puts the canvas on the floor and places himself above it. Hantai then puts himself in the painting by folding up the canvas and painting on top of the folded work, which is subsequently unfolded and hung on the wall. This manipulation of the ground seems to be his goal. No figure; just ground. Or then ground becoming figure. This undoing of the ground as support for the image is pursued in Kelly’s late plywood work without color, abandoning the last remnant of color optics.

Also a case could be made that the overall patterns of the Tabula series where figure and ground disappear in the grid-like structure of the work anticipate Richter’s overall squeegee work, which abandons figure/ground and any remnant of parts/whole.
Paul de Man the notorious deconstructionist liked to point out how thinkers in the course of an essay will end up making points that support a view opposite to what they intended. This seems to be the case in part in the “Modern Aesthetic”. Hegel is presented on several occasions as the “bête-noire” of Rodgers’ central artists. He represents everything that Rodgers’ heroes struggle against. They are anti-Hegelians influenced by Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Either overtly or by glorifying the private self, they struggle over against the State or status quo. I think that this premise works well for most of the artists except, oddly enough, it fails to capture Hantai’s aesthetic. Hegel’s famous dictum that “All that is real is rational and all that is rational is real.” came to mind, when I read about the process of Hantai's work. Hegel’s thinking embeds the metaphysical in the physical. From a political point of view it is the foundation of the Hegelian dialectic where the individual achieves its individuality only as a part of the idea of the state. From a purely analytical view it dissolves the physicality of the world into pure idea. Is not Hantai doing that when he takes what would have been the ground of the painting, so that it no longer functions as physical support for the painting but is figure and ground at the same time. Is it pure materiality or pure idea? Nature as phusis or the metaphysical as “nothing” are squeezed out as possibilities for the painting as it folds and unfolds itself into pure idea/materiality. There is thus nothing that is un-thought, or "let be"(gelassenheit) two concepts very important to Heidegger in his attempt to create a new metaphysics.  It would be pure physicality save for the grid but the grid is a” weak” thought as popularized by Vatimmo.  Could Hantai also be the precursor of provisional painting?


My take on the creation of the Modernist Aesthetic focuses on the exploration of visual cognition.Or zen might allow for the unthought to take hold

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  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.