Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Terry Winters: Material and Mapping.

I find it continually surprising how much the art we respond to most, either as makers or viewers, is deeply connected to what we are exposed to in their formative years. The sympathies and rebellions we cultivate when we first plunge into art have lasting consequences that run biologically deep. I can only imagine the excitement of young modernists turning the academies upside down, spilling out to work in the capitals of Europe, forming groups and “isms” ever faster, blinking in and out of existence like quantum particles. As art schools became more professionalized[1], the sense of needing to advance a shared style or aesthetic concern seems to have diminished in favor of collectives with looser aesthetic dogmas.[2] Whether this is a cause or result of the rise of Post-modernism is an open question[3], but just as it would be foolish to dismiss the influence of pedagogy on the course of art, so it would be equally foolish to accord it as much scope when so much energy is directed toward revising the narratives of contemporary art.

As an undergraduate committed to painting, I was initially interested in figuration and narrative, but I quickly turned to abstraction as I worked through basic forms reduced to diagrams. I wasn’t interested in history painting or in the interaction of figures in actual space[4], but I was also not interested in the abstraction of material for its own sake.[5] My initial points of reference were Pop or neo-imagist artists, but I didn’t make a personal connection to the work, which led to my feeling a little lost. Then my teacher[6] took the time to drive me and a few other students out to see an exhibition of Terry Winters’s paintings.

It was a distillation of his Whitney retrospective, showing mostly large-scale paintings. They immediately grabbed me for their combination of scientific reference, painterly process and the integration of abstraction with a sense of space rooted in figure-ground relationships. His botanical forms were built out of impasto that sometimes seemed to be inches thick.[7] They floated in the diagrammatic space of the canvas or materialized out of scratching in the paint like corrections in a scientist’s field journal, and I was blown away. The work seemed to be speaking directly to me, a sensation that was enhanced as I digested Lisa Phillips and Klaus Kertess’s retrospective catalog. The influence went very deep and affected a great deal of how I made art, from an interest in every technical component of painting to building a studio practice that included continuous drawing.[8]

Other influences came and went, but I continued to follow Winters’s work, though mostly at a distance from New York, and so mostly through reproduction. Not knowing the difference between the real painting and the image as his work changed lead to a curious case of mis-translation. The final works in the Kansas exhibition showed him moving closer to his spores and blastula, magnifying them to fill the canvas and melding them with the painted ground. The paint was thick and luscious, like the wet-into-wet impasto of late Guston. Winters had not yet transitioned fully into the networks and fields that occupy him now, and when I first saw reproductions of the new paintings, I assumed they had the same surface topologies because I did not consider how much of his work comes from an interaction with the natural world.[9] Plants and fungi can be collected as specimens and held in the hand. Moving one’s point of view to the inside of a cell requires examination beyond the naked eye; the experience is at a remove, the material weight of handling glass slides under a microscope has given way to computer imaging on screens and the surface of the work shows the new source. Where I imagined near reliefs of painted networks, Winters was actually working much more simply and directly, with the linear structures graphed in translucent skeins.

Winters’s exhibition “Facts and Fictions” at the Drawing Center shows the transition clearly. As one starts clockwise around the gallery one can see how drawing led the way. The earliest works, on the south wall, are thick charcoal, chalk, and sometimes crayon and graphite; the images emerge out of a velvety density embedded in the paper. To anyone familiar with his paintings, the facture is instantly recognizable, although the paper’s existence as exposed ground stands as in stark contrast to the refusal to let primed canvas enjoy a similar spotlight. The back wall contains five works on large paper that shift quickly from drawing and mixed media to paintings on paper. The choppy structure and palette of “Animation” is echoed in the painting “Parallel Rendering 2” of a year later; the off-white of the paper is a similar value to the painting’s tan ground, and the traces of yellow behind the network adding traces of luminosity.[10] The north wall marks the transition to the exploration of the entire surface as a shifting and tessellating plane. Winters has moved through layers of magnification to spaces and fields described by complicated mathematics that are graphed on computer screens, and the drawings’ surfaces have shifted to precise skins rendered in shiny graphite with additions of charcoal or ink that are screen-thin.[11] Depth is created by the spatial alignment of the structure rather than the layers of material articulating relationships between figure and ground.[12]

This is primarily evident in the comparison of selections from the Schema series from 1985–86 to the to the 48 drawings in cases on the floor from 2006–16 (with different cycles emerging from the overall series). Both are comprised of letter format paper[13] that offer an encyclopedic view of Winters’s visual preoccupations at the time. In the Schema drawings there is a wider variety of material exploration, from pencil and charcoal to watercolor, gouache, and even oil stick. The botanical forms and cellular accumulations are laid out off-handedly; stacked, layered, and nested in scratched marks and jottings. Their placement responds as much to the improvisations in the painted field of space they inhabit as to mere representation. The heavy paper buckles with layers of wet media, giving a palpable linkage of biological and creative process. By contrast, the later series is dry, the paper retains its plane and the spatial graphing and forms tend to be centrally organized and often the deckle edge is delineated with a hard pencil edge. These images read as a mapping of the paper’s space. There is still space for improvisation, but the forms are ultimately more descriptive than their predecessors, even as they are more difficult for the layman to understand and identify.

Earlier in the summer, “Facts and Fictions” could be contrasted with Winters’s exhibition “12twelvepaintings” at Matthew Marks Gallery. One could examine how the spaces in the drawings projected to six and a half by five feet.[14] Color and texture articulate the surface, and the scale and painting process allows for more complex interactions between different descriptive systems. The paint surface did not grab me the way the earlier works did, but I appreciated their cartographer’s directness. As I left I found a small monoprint from 2004 in the back of the gallery entrance, under the stairs. The pale colors alternated between atmospheric space and border, reversing their functions as they interacted with other elements. A strip of copper rectangles along the top implied a sheet torn from spiral bound pad. The structure seemed to rise up off of the paper in embossed relief, delineating a twisting spiral space and an enclosing frame, and then pushing beyond the artificial border. Perhaps it was an experiment for the artist, but it struck me that I couldn’t help but see in it the physicality I’d always imagined in Winters’s large paintings. This avenue may not be important to the artist, after all many artists explore directions that are not important to their practice, but it was important for me to find.

“Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions” continues at the Drawing Center until August 12.

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[1] Yale’s MFA program sending Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and others right into SoHo seems like a turning point for the professional connections between graduate programs and the New York gallery scene.

[2] Consider the YBA generation that came out of Goldsmith’s; their work is really only connected by being collected by Charles Saatchi, rather than any shared aesthetic concerns.

[3] Although to be fair, the social snobbery and cliquishness of some strains of modernism would put many present-day teenagers to shame.

[4] Photography seemed to have secured this ground and rendering tableau in paint seemed to only be adding expressionist flourishes that confused the relationships of the figures to themselves and the space they inhabited.

[5] Yet.

[6] Sharon Louden, in what must have been one of her first jobs, and who has proceeded to do a great work on what it means to be a working artist in today’s culture.

[7] The phallic forms of “Pitch Lake” particularly stand out in this regard.

[8] It also led me to make a great many very derivative paintings, as is a common reaction for most art students.

[9] This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how much the early naturalists figure in literature of Winters’s early works.

[10] The painting is more resolved, but where its yellow structure describes a source of flight behind the primary structure, the streaks of color in the drawing add to the sense of directness in the artist recording his intent.

[11] This is especially evident in the “7-Fold Sequence” works.

[12] This approach to the space of the artwork is evident in Winters’s prints, where an a priori articulation of the image is dictated by serial nature of the printing process.

[13] Artists’ approach to paper is always fascinating. Many process-based artists experiment with a broad variety of paper (Brice Marden and his use of Asian as well as European watercolor papers comes to mind), but Winters’s focus is on capturing the image, and his paper doesn’t call attention to itself as a unique material.

[14] Although the exact dimensions of the 2006–16 works are not provided, note that a letter size of eleven to twelve by eight and a half to nine inches keeps the proportions nearly identical. The use of framing devices within the paintings serves to further tighten the proportions.

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Written by Brian Dupont

August 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm

Provisional Criticism and the New Mannerism

No matter whom you ask the concept of the provisional is likely to start an argument. This is all the more interesting not as it illuminates the work, but for what it reveals about the discourse surrounding contemporary abstract painting.[1] I have already written on my view that Provisionalism[2] represents a trend in art that has snaked through a good deal of modernist history; that its roots have tended to be ignored within larger established narratives has only broadened its connection among a diverse set of artistic practices. As it has emerged on the scene (again!) in the work of younger painters[3] it has found itself the object to both legitimate criticism and off-hand derision. If this this is the first real “new” movement in abstraction in some time[4], and the jeers appear as retrograde calls for “moving forward”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider our thinking on direction and the ground art is traversing.

Alan Pocaro’s Three Hypotheses claims to be searching for a way forward, but ultimately offers little more than condescension born of running in circles, before giving up. The introduction starts by planting a field of straw men[5] and continues on to try and figure out just what is Provisionalism’s “inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike.” The first hypothesis is that provisional painting is something writers have created, trying to tell a good story.[6] The second states that the artists who make the work are little more than poseurs, dashing off minor efforts and propping it up with complicated theory and discourse.[7] His third hypothesis has artists mining a dead history out of nostalgia, turning backwards because of the impossibility of describing something new.[8] In truth, if there is enough art being made in a similar vein that can be grouped into a trend or style, a writer who isn’t trying to make “the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative” should probably be able to come with more varied ideas about its popularity. From a critical standpoint this is a limited set of options that betrays either an unwillingness to consider either a different point of view or an unimaginative assessment of the inherent possibilities of painting. His conclusion turns back on writing, claiming that any “disquisitions” will only support anachronistic theory. This likewise betrays a very limited sense of the possibilities of art by means of limiting its discourse to the sound bite and the press release. Refusing the utility of careful looking and thinking, and communicating the results of those investigations will not do painting any favors.

What stands out in Pocaro’s essay is the assumption that the painting in question is self-evidently “bad”[9] and that the author’s unstated biases towards art history, theory, and technique are obviously correct; I would argue that it are these assumptions that are the real problem. While they are not directly stated, we can infer that he, like many critics, want to see more work in painting, “sweat on the brow” that showed a dedication to craft and skill. Echoing Greenberg’s lament about the lowering of standards ignores the hierarchies of privilege that come with being the arbiter of those standards. Provisionalism did not remove the need for manual skill in art (that ship has long since sailed), but as it has become a focus in the practice of young artists it has become threatening exactly because it challenges the need for skill and craft within painting. This is the last high ground the old academies and hierarchies have. Appealing to a silent majority to refute aesthetic challenges harkens back to the tyrannies of the past rather than looking towards a more egalitarian (we hope) future.

There is no small irony in defending the Pre-Raphaelites from dismantling by Roberta Smith as “highly skilled.”  The Pre-Raphaelites tried to save art by looking backwards to better days, using empty displays of technical accomplishment to do it. But it, as Smith writes, “the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have made some of the first so-bad-it’s-maybe-good modern art” then they are strangely linked to artists interested in a provisional approach; both made or make art without care for what they were told art had to look like, had to be. If the works of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are valuable to contemporary artists, it is because they showed that there was value in striking out on one’s own direction, to make the art and painting that they wanted to see. Smith notes that the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is not necessarily of individual celebrity, but is embedded as a strain of DNA across wide swaths of visual culture. I believe that Provisionalism is another such trend, perhaps more recent, but also more attuned to our times.

It is pointless to decry criticism, theory, and just plain writing about art; you may just as well complain about talking about it. Every Modernist movement has had its theorist, from Baudelaire’s championing of Manet and Delacroix to the ‘bergs Stein and Green each advocating for different facets of the New York School. Artists being able to write cogently about the issues that they deal with gives a voice to the makers of the work, which is a point of view often missing from the writings of historians.[10] I think this is particularly lacking in the discussion on Provisionalism; for a painter who has been given a dry foundation instruction on stretching and priming canvas and properly mixing colors, why has no one considered the excitement that it must bring to rip up that structure and just play with the materials, to add in elements from the street and hardware store[11], to explore with one’s hands in the studio?  If the art is made, it can and will be talked and written about and if artists do not lay out their own ideas someone else will certainly fill the void for them. . That “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” is an argument for the status quo… and would cede authority back to the Established power structure by default of not allowing for an alternative. The last thing that’s needed is another silent majority.

Readings of history are subjective. The nexus between and Modernism and Post-modernism and their interrelationship with critical theory need not be fixed for each viewer.[12] Artists are free to take what they can use from any given intellectual site before moving on and continuing to explore; the ones who become too loaded down with the ideas if others are the ones who will become immobile and stagnant. The artist is not to prize novelty, but to place the focus in being true to one’s own interests, My reading of western art’s history has the Modernist project reaching a singularity where the art object breaks down at the arrival of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art.[13] Post-modernism was born out of that singularity as art is indistinguishable from the common material that sits beside it that is not art; context and intent became as important as matter. The early days of Post-modernism saw a similar wild expansion just as Modernism did, with Feminist and Multicultural practices gaining recognition, and proliferation of new approaches: appropriation, pastiche, the Pictures Generation, Neo Expressionism, Neo-Geo. After the initial explosion the art world has continued to expand, but the initial influences of those first conglomerations exert a lesser gravity of influence.

The new Post-modern landscape of the art worlds[14] is now akin to a near infinite desert where no mode or medium is off limits and any aesthetic is viable for new work or reinvention. This is already being likened to a new Mannerism[15], and while I find the label fitting, my view that what I do not share is the pessimism for contemporary arts on this relative turn of events. I ascribe to the model of the desert in that there is near-infinite possibility to move and ultimately it is that freedom that eclipses any other detriment. Any sort of directional movement is no longer distinguishable from another; what would “forward” mean in such a context? Depending on the position of the viewer it may be an awkward tangent and to another the work will be heading backwards (and likely right through their own ideas of progress). To say that this is a perfectly fine state of affairs (let alone something desirable enough to fight for) is not to suggest that everything is just OK or that there is no use for critical thought, but the terrain of art will be constantly changing and more subtle, more difficult to read. One’s approach to looking at and thinking about art must allow for this, considering that the artist may have a radically different frame of reference. Of course a great deal of the work will be bad, some of it will just be “bad”, but some small bit of it will be good.[16] The work necessary to find art that is good[17] can hide the fact that it is a positive thing that it was made, however now it must be judged on individual merits and accomplishment, not the category it is assigned to. Categories are only generalizations; what is important are the specifics of the artwork and the relationships in question.


[1] I think it as at least safe to say that the majority of work under discussion is abstract, although there are certainly exceptions. Perhaps not all the work is “painting”, but it is at least the medium that most of the discourse centers around.

[2] And yes, I’m keeping the “ism.” It’s just easier that way.

[3] Perhaps therein lies the distinction between “Provisionialism” as a broader stylistic trend like “abstraction” and “Casualism” as described by Sharon Butler; “Casualism” has become much more specific to a time and place, and focused on a specific generation of painters. See her ‘The Casualist Tendency’ for her response to Pocaro.

[4] I am not sure that it is, but it is often treated as such.

[5] The only “massive realignment” I’ve noticed that is underway in the art world is the shift that focuses more money and attention on fewer artists through a few dealers dueling at the very top of the market. I haven’t noticed that very many (or really any) of these artists are labeled as either “provisional” or “casual”; the only people I’ve noticed lavishing the attention on it that would otherwise indicate that Provisionalism represents a new “flagship abstract style” are those going through the trouble to vociferously condemn it.

[6] This makes it seem as if the category has been created from whole cloth by fictioneers, rather than writers who focus on the history, theory, and criticism of art and painting. Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler were responding to work they were seeing in studios, galleries and museums; taking the work as evidence and fitting it into a narrative is not an example of “trying to tell a good story,” it’s an example of scholarship.

[7] While it’s always nice when an erstwhile educator speaks derisively of his students in a public forum, and always enjoy making fun of how people different from me dress, I think the greater critical flaw in this argument is that takes the weakest possible work, student painting that is not even being offered for exhibition, and assumes that criticism of it and its makers is a suitable stand-in for the category as a whole. One may as well pull any fourth generation Abstract Expressionist out a West Village garret and hold their work up as a repudiation of Pollock and deKooning. (And I bet he’d be dressed funny, too. I bet you could find someone with a beret.)

[8] Given the direction it seems most of Provisionalism’s detractors would like art to go, complaining about it not being forward thinking enough is highly ironic.

[9] Granted, Provisionalism is sometimes labeled as purposefully “bad”, but I think Pocaro’s meaning here is limited to only a qualitative judgment.

[10] I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an art history student on the occasion of deKooning’s recent MoMA retrospective. We were talking about the relevance of the newspaper transfers in his great urban abstractions of the mid-Fifties; but the historian saw them without realizing they were an accident of trying to keep his oil paint wet on the surface, not anything he was purposefully trying to do.

[11] It is worth noting that a great many artists are working day jobs that require “sweat on the brow” and are typically surrounded by the tools and materials of manual labor.

[12] Just as they are not for scholars and historians.

[13] Yes, it is heavily influenced by Arthur Danto’s writing, especially “Beyond the Brillo Box” and subsequent texts on ‘the end of art.’

[14] There are plural art worlds, and it is possible to occupy a small niche or spread out and move between a wide strata of socioeconomic, intellectual, and aesthetic orbits. I use “art worlds” to indicate that spheres of interest and influence can be so different that there is no universal focus of those who operate around art. One cannot ascribe something to “the art world” without inherently limiting the frame of reference under discussion; art certainly also contains the opposition.

[15] I was already thinking of this framing when I heard Mark Staff Brandl articulate it on Bad at Sports. More recently it has gained even greater currency with Jerry Saltz’s latest lament on what ails contemporary art.

[16] I still believe in Sturgeon’s Law as a guiding principle when looking at art.

[17] Again, from one’s own point of view.

What 101 Spring Street Means to Me

My essay on the reopening of Donald Judd’s studio after extensive renovations was published in the journal Big Red & Shiny (volume 2, issue 9) originally published on May 20, 2013. You can read it here.

Where I Am Now: In Conversation with Peter Soriano.

My conversation with Peter Soriano regarding the evolution of his practice is up now at Idiom. You can read it by clicking here.

Written by Brian Dupont

September 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Intent or Artifact: Richard Serra’s Drawings.

I will confess that I have long had a fascination with the drawings of sculptors. Drawing as a medium is immediate in a way no other medium is; a mark on paper direct from the artist’s hand is about as close to thought or intent as you can get. Where a painter’s hand will leave an equivalent gesture from drawing to painting (think of Terry Winters or Brice Marden), a sculptor (may) have an interesting turn as the marks turn to towards the artist’s thinking in three dimensions. There was something to a drawing with the directness of a schematic, something only as refined as it needed to be yet dealing with idiosyncratic manufacture that spoke to me, but in a dialect I couldn’t quite fathom.

Richard Serra’s drawings approached this basic interest from the opposite horizon. His sculptural output seems to be about taking the basic language of art that is regularly commanded by drawing (line, volume, mass, gesture) and transposing it into sculpture (and from sculpture, one could argue, to architecture). A product of the late 60’s, Serra’s early concerns dovetailed with larger questions raised by the reductiveness of late Modernism in a way that could not help but engage painting. His early installation works of paintstick on linen stapled directly to the wall could easily be called paintings if the artist wanted to. (And matches the polished and otherwise anonymous metal wall reliefs of  painters like Ellsworth Kelly.)

Abstract Slavery (1974) is a monochrome masterpiece of subtle orientations of mass, angle, and material that communicates with little in the way of vocabulary beyond the considerable work of making it. One edge is trimmed perpendicular to the floor, and the irregular plane suggests a cut into space that remains flat on the wall. The scale and irregularity alter the viewer’s space with a shove, which is about as direct as communication gets.

As a retrospective of his drawings organized by the Menil collection opens at the Metropolitan Museum, viewers will get a chance to see a less trumpeted side of the artist, his commitment to process. Serra’s drawings are not composed pictorially, but of an intent to act on a space or material. Since his heralded list of verbs and his under-recognized process based works of splashing, scattering, and other action on found industrial material that preceded his props, the artist’s commitment to the materials and process has not been as explored. Large bends in steel plates are not always talked about for the work of their making, but it is clear that the artist approaches them in this fashion, as would the ship builders whose steel plants help manufacture the pieces. Likewise his approach to his drawings exhibits a particular rigor that does not necessarily privilege the object.

Laura Gilbert’s look at the provenance and dating of the material that will be on view strikes me as utterly beside the point. The “installation drawings” simply do not exhibit any concern with finicky notions of a precious object or the artist’s hand. It is likely that anonymous assistants did a good deal of the manual labor of applying heated paintstick to linen, and it seems much more appropriate to consider those pieces of linen as no more special than a particular plate of steel or lead. Any minor surface inflection is beside the point, and with them dates of production or concerns about whether they are originals or copies. They are, as the artist bluntly states, material.

That is not to say that the Mr. Serra has discarded any care about his work in favor of some ephemeral notion of the dissolution of the art object; how could anyone with such an obvious dedication to weight and mass? I continually find myself thinking about his early work To Lift in MoMA’s collection. Made by the artist simply grabbing a piece of vulcanized rubber and lifting it up off the floor so that the sheet could support the weight of its new found (sculptural) volume, it is as direct a gesture as drawing can get. My engagement with the work comes from my day job as an art handler tasked to pack and crate works for shipment. Looking at the task of crating the sculpture with little information other than the picture, I wondered if the volume needed to be crated, or if we might just be shipping a flat piece of rubber that would be “re-lifted” for the exhibition. There was also the chance that nothing would be sent, and a new piece of rubber would be trimmed to size and lifted, duplicating the original (an exhibition copy).

Any of these courses of action would potentially fit within Mr. Serra’s practice. As it turns out I was able to talk to a colleague who had designed a crate for the work, one that supported a very aged fold of vulcanized rubber (a decidedly non-archival material that does not age well). I asked after the possibility of replacing the rubber, and it turns out that the artist was unconcerned with change in the material over time, looking at it as a natural process in the life of the piece. In the end the matter is one of an artist with a realized and considered practice working through his concerns through an engagement with materials and the process enacted on them; just as some bent plates sitting in a steel yard in the Bronx do not a Serra make, some new linen, paintstick, and staples do not change the artist’s intentions on the space around him, or us.

 

 

Written by Brian Dupont

April 14, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in General

Tagged with , , ,

My List

As the little tempest in a teacup that is some artists on Twitter finding Modern Art Notes Tyler Green’s Art Madness Bracket rather light on works of the post-war art that wasn’t produced by white males, noted art writer Sharon Butler solicited alternative lists that were published on her Two Coats of Paint blog. I submitted my own list as did several other artists, writers, and critics. I found the entire exercise to be very interesting; looking at the other lists I had quite a few “Oh, how could I leave that work off?” moments. In other cases it allowed me to gain a slightly more subtle understanding of another artists own work, development, and interests. I found drawing up my own list to be fairly eye opening; some artists that I hadn’t consciously thought about for awhile wound up having a lot of pieces on my first draft (that I had to cut 3 Bruce Nauman works was a surprise). In other cases I found that artists that were important to me didn’t have a singular work or even series that stood out in proportion to their overall career (or against the other works I listed).

In the end I approached my list as I think the individual writers who rank baseball prospects do. It has to be considered a snapshot of what I think right now, it is not the same list I would’ve produced a year ago and may change even in the near future. It also almost certainly contains a bias towards works that have influenced me in the past and work that I look at and consider in relation to what’s going on in my own studio now. I think this was a consideration for all of the artists who participated. As one of my primary issues with Mr. Green’s list is that focusing on individual masterpieces was one of the systematic biases that lead to so few women making the list, I made much broader allowances than he or his co-jurors did.

1. Pollock Number 32
2. Judd 100 works in milled aluminum
3. Ellsworth Kelly La Combe
4. Joseph Beuys Arena
5. Smithson Spiral Jetty
6. Gordon Matta-Clarke  Splitting
7. DeKooning   Excavation
8. Frank Stella   The Marriage of Reason and Squalor
9. Cindy Sherman   Untitled Film Stills *
10. Judd  Untitled 1962
11. Serra  Belts
12. Nauman  South American Triangle
13. Roni Horn   Paired Mats – for Ross and Felix
14. Terry Winters  Good Government
15. Brice Marden  The Grove Group *
16. Gober  Silly Sink
17. Richter  October 18th *
18. Christopher Wool  Apocalypse Now
19. Glen Ligon  Untitled (Text paintings) *
20. Paul Thek Technological Reliquaries *
21. Matthew Barney  Cremaster 3
22. Eva Hesse  Untitled 1970
23. Catherine Opie  Untitled (Icehouse series) *
24. Blinky Palermo  To the people of NYC
25. L. Bourgeois  Spider 1997
26. Felix Gonzalez Torres  Untitled (Perfect Lovers)
27. Nauman  Corrider Installation (Nick Wilder Installation)
28. Flavin  Untitled (Marfa Project) 1996
29. Barry LeVa  Continuous and Related Activities
30. Maya Lin  Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
31. Julie Meheretu  Goldman Sachs Mural
32. Wade Guyton Untitled 1997 *(kind of)

Works marked with an asterisk point to series or bodies of work that are so closely related that I think pulling out a single work is beside the point.

My last changes were removing Martin Puryear’s Bask in favor of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and cutting Moria Dryer’s Random Fire. The works that just missed were Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series, Rachel Whiteread’s House, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet, and Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth. Clearly some of these works will be seen by others as more deserving, or “better”, but the point is that they just aren’t to me. I’m not arguing that Wade Guyton’s Untitled is of greater historical importance than Frank’s masterpiece, but The Americans doesn’t hold any interest for me or my practice. On the other hand I still find myself referring back to that painting of an “X” that was run through a big Epson printer, and thinking about how it has changed how I approach ideas of text and touch in my own painting. Similarly, early on I toyed with the idea of adding John Beech’s Make in the last spot on the list. I wanted the end to point towards a new work that had recently affected me and caused me to reconsider a broad swath of the art I was seeing around me every day.

At the top I still have Pollock and Judd. I wanted to put Judd’s Chinati Foundation (the entire Foundation and everything in it) ahead of even Pollock, but that wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of the list or the response to Mr. Green. As it stands, Pollock’s drip paintings in total represent a great deal to contemporary art, and I think one of the major differences between post-war European and American art turns on the different spaces in painting and process he opened up with these works. I can oscillate between Number 32 and Autumn Rhythm, but I prefer the stark graphic quality of the uncorrected black enamel on cotton duck. That it all starts with drawing appeals to me.

It has also been interesting to hear suggestions to what we missed. John Powers noted that Jay DeFeo’s The Rose was left off everyone’s lists. (If women are denied the admission of genius that would “let them produce a singular masterpiece, she’s an excellent example of an opposite bias – she produced that single masterpiece, but is otherwise not considered for not having a more level career.) John Morris pointed out that I missed any reference to street art, and that Henry Darger perhaps should have been listed. I’ll speak to street art at another time, but Darger would’ve presented an interesting case. My own list is remarkably light on figuration (even in the photography), and Darger also raises the issue of “outsider” art. It’s a different angle, and one I don’t have an answer to, but considering everything from his opus as a single work would turn notions of art’s canon on it’s head.

Obviously I’m completely missing Johns, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Guston, Barnet Newman , and Warhol. This exercise has me reconsidering John’s White Flag. (I still think the Ballantine Ale Cans are a fairly lame joke, however.) With the others, I still just don’t come back to them anymore. I think all of these artists produced great works, and they’re works that I love, but they’re not something I relate to day to day anymore. John Powers has written an excellent repudiation of the concept of the masterpiece itself in response to the uproar. Looking over the lists the other artists provided, I think that may point to where artists are going to take art. Less masterpieces and more work is more democratic after all. If more voices is deemed a good thing then maybe shouting down the masterpiece is a good use of breath.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 25, 2011 at 7:42 am

Bracketology

Although I am not a basketball fan, the NCAA tournament has always represented the turning point where winter turns to spring. I have no interest in March Madness or associated workplace gambling; my sport is baseball and the annoyance posed by my co-workers trying to get me to go in on the office pool really only means that opening day is around the corner…

This is the second year Tyler Green has given his readers a set of brackets ostensibly for the art world. Last year he pitted the America’s abstract painters against one another (Cy Twombly beat out Ellsworth Kelly for the crown), but this year’s version is a bit more problematic. He aims to present a tournament of the greatest post-war works of art, but has instead managed to expose just how ingrained some of the systematic biases that haunt art and its attendant institutions can be.

Looking at his selection of 64 works of art, you’ll find only 3 works by women: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the other hand, most of the (very) old white males of the art historical canon are represented multiple times. Ruscha, Serra, and Judd are found twice; Richter three times; Johns, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Pollock, and Barnet Newman four times; and, perhaps fittingly for this kind of popularity contest, Warhol leads the pack with five works. That’s more than half the total bracket represented by only 10 (white) men.

Mr. Green did not generate the list of works himself; he amalgamated a seeding selection from five guests (two of whom were women) to get the final brackets, but the process is his, and despite facing complaints from myself and others (on Twitter) he has chosen to defend these results as given by the process he set up. I have suggested (in an exchange on Twitter) that such results may point to a flawed process and that as the organizer he could have made some changes, but his response was “Why on earth would I presume I’m so smart I should overrule the five other (distinguished) people I invited to contribute?”

An exercise of this sort, intended to be lighthearted and in good fun, is bound to contain most of the works that populate the very end of a mammoth art history textbook. The broad outlines and movements of post-war and contemporary art will be illustrated with a few key works, as space allows. If women and minorities are not well represented, whose fault is that? The makers of the list only picked personal favorites and had them compiled after all. If Joan Snyder, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Ana Mendita, Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Howardina Pindell, Elizabeth Murray, Dorthea Rockburn, Mona Hatoum, Yayoi Kusama, or Louise Bourgeios (to name just a few of the notables from the same time period as most of the works on the list off the top of my head) weren’t the favorites of these critics and curators, why is that necessarily a problem within the context of this harmless little game?

The answer is that because Mr. Green’s game has managed to illustrate quite succinctly how easy it is to exclude women and minorities and still have everyone involved remain blameless. Whether it be a small lark of a bracket or the larger art world, it is too easy to point at a system or process as an excuse without actually examining who set up the system or how. It may be “just a game”, but games allow us to distill and process some of life’s messier and complex interactions into a simpler form that is more comprehensible for its abstraction. In short, they make it easier to see what is fair, and I think it becomes very clear that the system as devised is not (either in the brackets or the art world).

At least in the case Art Maddness II, the problems are easier to identify and fix. Looking at the list I think it is evident that there are shifting evaluations based on lax guidelines. If it makes sense to consider Cindy Sherman’s entire Untitled Film Still series and Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings as a single entity, why does Jasper Johns need three different flags? Is Three Flags really that different from Flag? Similarly, how different are the DeKooning Women or any of the Newman zip paintings? Is the point to consider groundbreaking work or major statements? Isn’t Vir Heroicus Sublimis so closely related to Onement I that context that they can be discussed in the same breadth? Pollock’s individual drip paintings are different enough, but isn’t their scope related to the collective breakthrough they represent?

Lest I be accused of not presenting an alternative, I find that I only need to look at another rite of spring, one that relates to my own sporting interest and would not require any great investment to change. Every spring Baseball America ranks the top 100 prospects in baseball’s minor leagues. It is every bit as contentious as any other interested battle of minutiae, and their process is remarkably similar to Mr. Green’s. Each of their writing staff compiles a list of their opinion of the top prospects, and the results are compiled in a spreadsheet. However instead of that being the end of it and having the final list generated by having Jim Callis hit ‘print’, the writers get together to look at the raw results and debate and argue for them. They curate the list, revising and reconsidering so that there is, if not consensus, then at least a sense that the biases and idiosyncrasies that arise from such a small sampling of opinion can be removed and that the final list is stronger. Mr. Green could have had a simple conference call with Michael Auping, Kristen Hileman, Dominic Molon, Ed Schad, and Katy Siegel to see where duplicate works that present the same idea could be reconciled, and to see what deserving works that may have been left off could take the place of the duplicate.

To be inclusive may have been a bit more work, but it is disappointing that a writer who purports to hold himself to high standards and certainly holds others to similar account did not make the effort. The tournament hosted by Modern Art Notes is a small offense, but the reason to speak out against such minor infractions is to hold the larger system to account. That “it’s just a game” shouldn’t be an excuse if we don’t want “it’s just art” to be a similar refrain.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am