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