Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘Art

Out of Time (Part 3): A Wandering Market

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… Or, Attack of the Giant Killer Robots![1]

As Forever Now has engaged the critical debate around painting through the lens of technology and science fiction, and if our current context or the paintings themselves (see Part 1 and Part 2) don’t support this argument, there may still be a way to map contemporary fictions onto the landscape of painting. Popular criticism of the show has been unable to avoid discussion of the current art market and its influences, and most of what has been written certainly has a dystopian flavor. So if the Postmodern landscape of the art world is a “Desert of the Real” and artists are working inside of this new (or really not so new) reality, then we must also consider that the structures that surround and support that art have also changed, perhaps without us knowing, perhaps irrevocably. The issue at hand in any contested environment is not only what can be done to right the mistakes that brought us to this place, but what unintended consequences we might visit on the future.

Painting functions as a barometer in the nexus of art and market. Painting’s deaths have coincided with economic downturns, and when things pick back up there is usually a resurgence of interest in colored mud hung on the wall. However these shifts are more a matter of narrative for critics and historians; it is safe to say that the best artists continue to make the work they want regardless of fashion, even pushing at boundaries further when they are out of the spotlight. The continuing upward trend in the market, whether bull run or bubble, is unnerving, and leading to art being assessed differently. Aesthetics and criticism are intertwined with economics and influence in a way that if not really any different than in past generations[2], is more apparent in our networked era of information wanting to be free. If Forever Now exemplifies our current condition, it is in the implication that the transition to Postmodernism has finally caught up with not only what art is being made, but how it is being talked about, exhibited and sold. As artists and dealers are being forced to adjust to a Postmodern art market[3], critics and historians are functioning more and more as market analysts, intertwining aesthetics and economics, and perhaps privileging the concerns of the latter more than they should. As the narrative threads are tied together, there is a real danger that art may eventually lose the individual spark that makes it more than mere commodity.

The painting being labeled[4] as zombie formalism makes the workings of the market easy to criticize, but the lesson to be learned is that what will come next isn’t going to be a return to what we used to have. Writing in the Brooklyn Rail about the less heralded Whitney Museum exhibition Remote Viewing a decade ago, Stephen Maine derided the trend of “vernacular abstraction” as

“…the order of the day, with formalists scarce among younger painters … In part, this is a response to pressures of an expanding market, wherein collectors with deep pockets but little taste for art history, impatient with the linguistic indifference of high abstraction, are provided some anecdotal avenues of approach to the work.”

It is troubling for the discourse of art that who buys the work, for whatever reason (real or imagined) affects the criticism of it. Certainly great works have had ignominious beginnings, and while charges of philistinism are routinely leveled at new money forcing its way into any rarefied market, such criticism can be just as much about reinforcing a status quo of back channel exclusivity and power as lamenting the passing of connoisseurship.

The work in Remote Viewing exhibited a strong trend towards the idiosyncratic and handmade; towards uneven surfaces that did not compromise their facture for easy decoration and did not skimp on authorial labor.[5] These qualities are not really less evident in Forever Now but they have become far less emphasized as personal expression through the manipulation of materials has come to be seen as historical redundant; if any mark that can be made has already been made, how can it be a vehicle for unique personal expression? Over the last decade painting has absorbed the values of a market that embraced artists like Jeff Koons, whose legacy and practice espouses commodification and production above all else. In “Zombie Formalism” this legacy has trickled down to young artists who emulate the slick look and easy production from the top of a flush market. There are consequences to removing the artist’s hand and head from making art. Previously every artist that turned the studio into a production line first had to figure out how to make the thing themselves; the vacuousness of the worst contemporary painting is the result of short cuts and shoddy effort, of time not spent on the work.

Likewise there are consequences to the shift to an economic Postmodernism. The rise of “art” within Western European society[6] as something for the individual was tied to the rise of the middle class. The art of the academy mirrored the ossification of a society that eventually birthed not only Marxism, but also Modernism; avante garde art ceased to be made for the middle (i.e. merchant) class as evidenced by the title “bourgeois” descending into deprecating slur. Modernism also saw popular culture embrace different media than high art, furthering the divide.[7] With the shift to Postmodernism all but complete, we are faced with the demise of the middle class’s relevance to art portending the demise of the middle class itself. As more wealth accumulates to the top 1% and the middle class shrinks, collecting art has come to be seen as a game for oligarchs and the super-rich. This perception is reinforced every time the art press puts sales figures ahead of aesthetic content, and it ultimately only serves those wielding money in the art market like a weapon.

There has been money and influence behind the form and content of art from the beginning[8], but the opinion of artists, critics and connoisseurs carries less and less weight. We’re nearly 30 years removed from Robert Hughes’ essay Requiem for a Featherweight.[9] His critique of Basquait included coupling the Whitney Museum’s interest with the economic drive for a retrospective, but instead of destroying Basquait’s reputation, in the intervening years all we’ve seen is his continued canonization and an increase in his resale prices. Setting aside the validity of Hughes’ critique, it is evident that economic interests trump the critic as lone curmudgeon.[10] Instead of tilting at windmills of artistic reputation propped up as an asset class, we would do better to provide an alternate narrative of art grounded in what we are for, not against. We do not all have to agree (indeed, we should expect to vehemently disagree at times), but we do have to make a story for contemporary art that allows the thinking and making of the work, not its price, to be paramount.

 

 

[1] Which I’ve been teasing here in the notes since Part 1; that’s why you read the notes, people.

[2] We’ve all read enough pithy references about the Medici and their influence on the art of the residence, so let’s just pretend I put one here.

[3] Best outlined by Tim Schneider in The Gray Market.

[4] It’s a label that seems very dependent on current popular culture and its fixation on Zombies (for example, with the Walking Dead). If this work had come to prominence even 5 years ago when vampires and the Twilight movies were all the rage, I’m sure we would’ve been hearing about “vampire formalism” and paintings that looked good (and even sparkled) on the wall, but were devoid of any reflection of substance or deeper content, and were ultimately sucking the life out of painting.

[5] It’s interesting to note that the only artist in both shows, Julie Mehertu, has gone against the grain in both shows; showing more highly polished and produced works in Remote Viewing, and more gestural and seemingly transitional works in Forever Now.

[6] This only applies to western art out of the Renaissance tradition; Eastern art has followed a slightly different path, although artists were still dependent on an infrastructure provided by the ruling elite. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn comparing working within the free market to academia?

[7] One of the more interesting implications in Postmodernism is so called “high” art circling back and incorporating these media (photography, film and video, digital and internet practice) into contemporary discourse.

[8] Everybody wave to the Medici!

[9] Originally published in the New Criterion, 1988 and collected in Nothing If Not Critical.

[10] See Dave Hickey as a current example.

Written by Brian Dupont

February 15, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Out of Time (Part 2): In the Desert.

As part 1 of this essay considered the metaphorical space of the desert as a model for the new condition of painting within Postmodernism, the physical space of Forever Now is equally revealing. The exhibition is on the top floor, sitting in stark contrast to Matisse’s cut outs.[1] Compared to the lyrical journey on a pleasantly winding path that circumnavigates one of the high-water marks of modernism and pure pleasure in color and form, how is an exhibition mucking around in the creation of the grimy present supposed to stand up? The show feels as if it is being hyped to raise its profile as much as possible just on the way to the 4th floor. A large painting hangs over the main lobby like a billboard and several monumentally framed pieces are propped against the wall on either side of the entrance, like outsized carnival barker’s signs. Once inside the large space[2] is divided into a series of branching chambers with partitions encouraging meandering and no strict path, but also no exit except back the way one came.[3] Dead-ending against the back wall forces the viewer to rebound and wind one’s way back through the show and make new connections and consider different relations and viewpoints. The exhibition layout cancels any hierarchy and allows for slipping glimpses of how some model of the whole might lock together. Looking at the show is an exercise in exploration, of navigating terrain that is not set.

Other than being painting made recently, the work has no common denominator, outside of perhaps generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale[4], although many of the works have bits of the real world peeking through. The artists share no agenda or style; they are simply trying to make paintings that reflect how they interact with and process their world. That their work shows its influences and continues a dialog with art of the past does not necessarily point to any “atemporal” influence of the net, beyond its reality as a condition of our shared world. All of the artists have started making their mature work, if not lived their entire lives since the advent of Postmodernism; the interaction between the history of images and present production is ingrained in how they approach the canvas.

Amy Sillman’s abstractions provide the clearest model of how painting can make something new when the language of invention is played out, and in the process they show just how obsolete the idea of “newness” is. They are often (and incorrectly) labeled as a grab-bag mix of styles, a criticism that latches on to surface similarity rather than looking at just what Sillman creates for herself. She has found her voice in the direct handling of paint, getting colors that don’t easily go together to mix with gesture, shape and space to form a hard won picture that just barely keeps their different compositional elements in balance. They teeter on the edge of falling off the ledge, but the constant revisions within the picture are what give them their subtle vibrational energy and move the eye through the painting. The more complicated she gets the better; her simpler paintings flatten out as though with too few pictorial balls in the air there is not enough to sustain interest, either hers or the viewer’s. While there are no intimations of the figure here, it has often made appearances in her work; when it does it is more complicated in its relation to abstract elements in the picture than Guston[5] while remaining much more autonomous than in deKooning.[6] Just because she is working with a subject others have used, she is not beholden to them and her practice allows her raise content in subtler ways than her supposed sources.

Nicole Eisenman’s large portrait heads combined confrontational scale with unassuming demeanor. They confront Picasso with a sly rejoinder born of a contemporary eye. Her large frontal slabs of color are as precisely keyed as Sillman’s, and the paint surface is as worked and rewarding of close inspection. In several of the paintings she has pasted ethnographic clippings onto the surface. Their shapes echo those built in paint, put they flicker irritatingly, causing a difficult shift in resolutions of scale as the dull grisaille of newsprint or Xerox tries to hide against oil paint, but sit on the surface pushing the space in the painting back. They continue to grate, itching the brain; the fact that I want them removed is probably why they’re there. It is also an example of just how aware a critic must be of one’s own biases. One of my favorite paintings by Eisenman, The Break up, has a similar format, but lacks additional collage. I found myself longing for its unadulterated surface, and spent time going back to see if I could get the artist’s intent rather than trying to make them fit into my own preconceptions. Her Easter Island portraits make for a dynamic conversation with Mark Grohtjahn’s mask paintings, which explode out with color and minute gesture – the mass is the same as Eisenman’s, but built as a mosaic rather than a slab; we get to see to very different artists approaching a similar idea in very different ways. In Grohtjahn any sense of a source portrait is obliterated in a flurry of paint. His works are not without their own material quirks. Impasto paint curls around stretched linen, but the paint is actually on cardboard. If you look carefully you can detect the slight deflection of the surface plane away from the wall in one of the panels.

These sorts of material inconsistencies and deviations from “pure” painting run throughput the work in the show. Greenberg’s purity of medium was being discarded almost as quickly as it was becoming established dogma, and what a painting is made out of is considered only when it is blatantly foregrounded by the work, and then if it is so obvious the work usually falls flat. Rashid Johnson’s scratches in soap and wax fail for inserting a Twombly-esque distraction where none is needed[7]; if the resonance of the materials and their importance to the artist’s cultural and ethnic experience is the central point then shouldn’t the simple act of just matter-of-factly putting them on the surface be enough? Trying to make it look like art seems more self-conscious and is ultimately unconvincing. On the opposite end of a similar spectrum Richard Aldrich’s wispy gestures are interesting as sketches writ large, an idea proposed quickly in the studio, but they do not read as full blown statements – it is here that we start to encounter the slippery slope of just how much work really is needed to make a painting.[8] It seems as if the critical eye may slide over some paintings that seem to easily made, too strategized into being. By contrast Dianna Molzan breaks apart the components of a painting to make charming and inventive objects that inject personal idiosyncrasy into the cool ontology of the painting as object. Every aspect of her wry objects is carefully considered[9], and this investment results in a warmth and humor in a small scale object[10] that stands up to an empire of large canvases.

Twombly’s influence runs deep through the exhibition, like a common genetic marker. His off-handed and scrawling gesture is a common antecedent to Provisionalism and other strains of the abject in contemporary painting.[11] Critics have not laid the blame at his doorstep, but he is the precursor for the aesthetic developments that are the most troubling to the old guard. He heralds the obsolescence of virtuosity, the divorce of the monumental work matched to a grand statement. To put it another way, when Richard Serra called Twombly the bravest person in modern art for taking on Pollock with only a pencil, the other side of this is that it was possible not only to take on Pollock with only a pencil, but to win. In winning he shifted the stakes and scope away from the tortures of labor and towards the academics of abstraction. He removed doubt[12] from the process of making a painting that was an anathema to Guston and deKooning. It’s instructive to compare his Treatise on the Veil to Forever Now and see just how much contemporary painting falls under his influence. There are other such giants that loom over painting (Polke comes to mind) but Forever Now’s focus on abstraction is what foregrounds Twombly.

Perhaps the most surprising comparison to Twombly is Julie Mehertu, who has covered her trademark precise pen line with flicks of brushed ink. It’s as if turbulent weather and atmosphere has descended to surround her previous architectural subjects. In the larger painting on view it is possible to discern her more standard pictorial language in earlier layers, giving these works the feeling that they were unsatisfactory works that were treated as salvage experiments. They also seem to come out of the small scale (and definitely less-produced) paintings in her recent solo show at Mariam Goodman, but whether they represent a new direction or merely a tangent in her practice, they stand out for how they relate to the exhibition’s curatorial conceit. Mehertu’s iconic works are steeped in the relationships of systems and the transfer of information across global networks; there is a robust thread connecting them to the digital references the concept of the atemporal suggests (and William Gibson’s writings practically demand), but Hoptman’s focus is on the recycling and reclamation of images and references rather than the mechanisms and infrastructure of that transfer. As such whatever formal turns Mehertu takes, the comparison of the exhibition is limited to surface similarities of the aesthetic qualities of the objects themselves and not to exploring the deeper implications of the interactions.[13]

Collector’s darling and critical whipping boy Oscar Murillo is presenting his paintings for the first time in New York. Given the arc and design of his career it would seem to raise expectations perhaps beyond what the paintings can support.[14] Murillo seems aware of the possible bind, and his interest in moving his art past just being pretty pictures on the wall is on view in a pile of unstretched canvases left lying in the corner to be dragged around and rearranged by the show’s visitors. The gesture speaks to a common desire by painters, especially those working abstractly, to be taken seriously and express something beyond mere decoration.[15] Murrilo’s answer is to allow the viewer to interact with his works as he does before they are finally stretched. There is a frission to be found in touching and moving works in a museum, however the artist’s studio is not necessarily an ideal arena for viewing art, and importing its processes into a museum trivializes his choices rather than lending them gravitas. Instead of revealing thought and process they become just an opportunity for the audience to take selfies. The gesture also feels arbitrary, as his stretched paintings on the walls are not out of place with the rest of the exhibition.[16] The bruised surfaces and casually gestural compositions belie an elegant colorist with a keen sense for collage and editing together fragments to form a cohesive whole; his integration of the separate parts and seams are much more integrated into his overall process and the resulting paintings than Albert Oehlen’s recent exhibition with a similar focus. The youngest artist in the show, he is emblematic of the potential problems of a new, metastasized art market that limits judgment to such a narrow career arc, without allowances for growth or change.

Forever Now is MoMA’s first exhibition of painting in 30 years, but beyond the imprimatur it is neither encyclopedic or revolutionary; instead it continues a line of exploration that maps trends and similarities in Postmodern painting. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 at the Whitney Museum explored how painting turned towards objecthood in the wake of Minimalism and the advent of Postmodernism. Cheim and Read presented Reinventing Abstraction, a less known history of the 70’s and 80’s as a source of continuing rehabilitation of abstraction in painting during a period when Neo-expressionism crested into a second wave of conceptual art; it showed painting that was being made in studios the last time MoMA put on a painting show, and illustrated just how much influence can shift and change. In the vein of the shifting landscape of criticism and fashion, one should also consider the Whitney’s Remote Veiwing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), which explored contemporary painting’s relation to dense and personal networks of information.[17] An exhibition a decade past, its links and history organize a thesis that is not dissimilar to that of Forever Now, but with a drastically different focus. The network of Remote Viewing leads to practices of labor-intensive detail, to an exhaustive search for a framework that will mesh with a personal vision. Forever Now references the contemporary Internet, where the birth and appropriation of images are midwifed by brand identities and the ease of cutting and pasting over a wi-fi connection. That so much of Forever Now seems to fall flat[18] may point to this ease of execution; as labor is devalued across the economy, the less demand there is for works of art that grate with a material density that cannot be easily replicated by a JPEG or digital scan, but the most successful works on view maintain their material reality as paintings. This remains true throughout the medium’s history, no matter the whims of the bazaar.

 

The essay concludes in Part 3.

 

[1] Conveniently coinciding with the exhibition title, entrance to the show is not timed.

[2] Which is not dissimilar from the large gallery spaces where most of this work is exhibited.

[3] A strategy well known in the design retail stores.

[4] Most of the works lock in at a large, but not overwhelming scale.

[5] Who could only get close to head-like lumps when working abstractly.

[6] Who made the abstraction of the figure the entire subject, the figure was the space of the painting, never really in it.

[7] Johnson’s inclusion is curious as he is primarily known for much stronger sculptural work, and the “paintings” included are a minor strain in his practice. These works fit with the exhibition in a way that one of his mirrored shelving reliefs do not, but that speaks more to his being included as a broader marker representing his practice; this in turn points to a possible agenda not encoded in the works themselves.

[8] I’m reminded of deKooning stepping back and wondering if his start could contain a picture, and it seems like for Aldrich the answer is not only “Yes” but also “…and it’s done.”

[9] Just examine the care and detail in the construction of her stretchers. The more common commercial stretcher builds would interrupt the delicate geometries she creates.

[10] And they are objects as opposed to pictures; their depth and the relation of the inside to the outside are inherent to them in a way that separates them from “Painting” proper.

[11] Much like Richard Tuttle in sculpture.

[12] Think of the references to graphitti that abound around his work and consider the confidence of his marks as someone stepping up to a wall with limited time and no room for doubt.

[13] I do not think it was necessarily a good idea to hang Mehertu’s paintings adjacent to Rashid Johnson’s works. The superficial similarities, albeit played out in contradictory materials (ink separated by isolating layers of acrylic vs. the earthy weight of soap and wax) are a facile comparison. It would have been just as obvious to hang Jacob Kassay’s silver mirrors across from Johnson, if he had been included.

[14] Then again, maybe not. One can also look at the recent trend of museum-quality shows in commercial (mega)galleries and then think that maybe David Zwirner has a much cannier strategy mapped out (remember the giant killer robots mentioned in the notes of Part 1? They’re coming in Part 3).

[15] It is nearly impossible to circumvent such criticism, but perhaps painters would be better off reading this than importing a Columbian chocolate factory to 19th Street for a month.

[16] It may be a litmus test for how you feel about the show and contemporary painting in general if you consider that to be a good thing or bad thing.

[17] It is startling to read contemporary criticism of the show and to see the nascent fragmentation of painting as a medium and similar concerns that are the same after so much time. Perhaps there is an origin for Provisionalism in Vernacular abstraction, or at least a historical precedent.

[18] There is always room for curatorial kvetching: I would’ve cut Bradley and Josh Smith and replaced them with R.H. Quaytman and Joanne Greenbaum.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2015 at 12:00 am

Out of Time (Part 1): ‘Forever Now’ and the New Landscape of Painting.

Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism[1] has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism[2] where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds[3] have been exposed.

Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to.[4] From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”[5], with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson[6] and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use[7] curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo[8] at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.[9]

For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward[10] or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new”[11] is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered.[12] This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.[13]

Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism[14] it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture.[15] The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination.[16] Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur.[17] Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.

 

The essay continues in Part 2 and Part 3.

 

 

[1] Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.

[2] A term coined by Martin Mugar and subsequently introduced to mass appeal by Walter Robinson.

[3] I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.

[4] My favorite being Jason Farago’s review in the Guardian.

[5] Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.

[6] The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else

[7] With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.

[8] A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.

[9] You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.

[10] And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.

[11] A value that nevertheless seems to be widely mourned in the reviews of the exhibition. See Peter Schjeldal in the New Yorker, among others.

[12] If not advertised as loudly as possible.

[13] In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

[14] Taking the red pill as it were.

[15] I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

[16] An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.

[17] The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.

Written by Brian Dupont

December 30, 2014 at 12:08 am

Loss Leaders

I don’t know anyone who pays attention to the art world who is not dismayed with its increasing stratification, with concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a tiny few. It’s a turn of events that has seen Art increasingly treated like an investment asset, just another high-end luxury good or status symbol. Edward Winkleman posted an essay on his blog that puts the onus on artists to take the lead in saving art and John Powers answered from an artist’s point of view, countering that instead artists need better data to make the proper decisions. While everyone involved has been motivated by wanting art to thrive and not see it’s aesthetic[1] and social value choked off by the market, suggestions as to real solutions are more difficult to come by.

My feeling is that the art world, and more specifically the art market, essentially reflects the capitalist economy we are all enmeshed in. Yet art is set at an acute angle to the culture as a whole; as an object[2] produced according to a singular vision[3] its reflection is distorted for the extremity of that position compared to other cultural products.[4] It is held to a higher standard not only for its legacy within culture, but for offering greater hope for change by providing an undiluted voice, and it is immeasurably darkened if it instead saccharinely manipulates those expectations. We might know that these expectations are messily built on fictions, but they don’t make any of us love art any less. What art allows us to express is something that no one who loves it wants to see transformed into another dumb commodity, but that also doesn’t mean we can excise art from the rest of the global economy and set it aside in its own crystal lined utopia. The problems ascribed to the art market are at their core problems of a certain trends of capital metastizing around art: increased prices leading to increased and watered down production, top galleries conglomerating and poaching talent to enclose the market in a near monopoly, speculators flipping art works at a high profit and to the detriment of artists’ careers, focused elitism alienating art from mainstream society; all easily map onto other markets, other bubbles. Any discussion of change must somehow account for this reality.

Powers likened this position to “cosmic background radiation” and I must say that I agree; the cosmic background radiation permeates the universe in a way that the current incarnation of capitalism[5] has spread throughout most aspects of the global economy. If you look deep enough it is always there. Likewise, art can be separated from other markets only to a superficial degree: real-estate, fuel, and other commodities represent real costs to anyone operating a business. So if dealers must follow the laws of the jungle in order to maintain their business, why is the calculus any different for artists? They are running a small business, and if they are to make their practice sustainable (if not sustaining) then falling on their economic sword in the name of art[6] is not necessarily attractive. This is where Power’s comparison of artists to the young drug dealers chronicled in Freakanomics is the most apt. As the lowest rung in the art world’s economic ladder, artists economic power is diffused over the broadest population, and if there’s always another dealer willing to pander in the name of a dollar there are ten artists dying to have their work shown, eager just to get the work out of the studio and maybe start to recoup the cost of an expensive studio rent and maybe start to pay off student loans.[7] If an entry-level drug dealer’s best option is to quit, not play the game, and go work in fast food, where does that leave artists?Altering the market for drugs in Chicago required a host of changes, many coming from the top down[8] and involving interventions[9] and incentives unavailable to most artists. Art dealers have a more concentrated economic stake, and are better poised to recoup the benefits of a change to the system. Dealers of course operate at different levels, and I suspect that everyone at the market’s pinnacle is quite happy with the situation as it stands. That leaves change to emerge from the bottom up, and out of the middle. It’s all well and good to ask artists to lead, but actual change will require the organization of the entire community; not just artists, but also dealers, critics, and collectors.

The art world has evolved to an imperfect symbiosis with its own market, and perhaps the most relevant question is if it is even possible for it to survive independently? The influx of money is at the root of the symptoms; it has pushed the tiny world of contemporary art out of its confines where everyone knew everyone else[10] and is driving the current “grow or go”[11] phenomena that magnifies the distortion of the largest galleries and secondary market. But this growth has also allowed space (admittedly often small) for other voices to become viable and alternative narratives to gain purchase. When Winkleman notes that dealers in the middle are exhausted and finding it hard to climb above a certain level the thing that stands out to me is just how much climbing is built into the system for everyone. As our culture and politics turn more nakedly Darwinian, and the art world with it, I don’t want to see the realities of the market acknowledged because I agree with someone like Stefan Simchowitz, but because suffering its collapse would drastically reduce the diversity of voices.[12] A certain amount of churn is desirable to avoid stasis and ossification; the pressure to “keep climbing” helps birth new ideas, or rediscover old ones, but also raises the distinct possibility that change may not take a form that we envision.

I think that absent a profound shock to the system it is more likely that the art market continues to progress along its current path with the general economy rather than retreats to a form from the recent past that is more comfortable. However this is not to say that those of us who love art should not be engaged in arguing for art to move according to our vision (unified or not), but we must know what we are asking for. To make work that is less “flippable”, less of a commodity, flies in the face of art’s recent history, where anything can be sold. It is no different a request to ask artists to somehow reject the market as it is for a dealer to ask for something smaller that also happens to be a pretty color. Either option comes at a cost to the artist and their work, and the consequences of such decisions should be properly weighed.[13]

If we accept that everyone is climbing I would argue that artists are already leading. Granted, I think most artists move instinctively towards gallery representation and the popular notion of a career[14], but where that path has not been open they can still be found working to expand their voice in other ways; engaging in the debate waged with things by also curating, writing, and creating their own exhibition spaces.[15] Whether these projects become a core component of their practice or something to be left aside as they gain traction in the art world, they remain as the base of the art world that is committed to art for its unique value of expression and as a form of knowledge, not as an expensive bauble. Perhaps it’s time for gallerists, critics, and curators who want things to change to dig in their heels and start working with artists with whom they share this commitment.

 

 

[1]For the purposes of this essay I am leaving out any specific aesthetic debate; changing the economic structure of the art market is a separate issue from arguing how to be sure that ‘good’ work is what is being supported. We all like different art, but are working within the same economic system. Arguing about aesthetics is a second front, and we all know how multi-front wars tend to go.

[2] And I realize that I may need to use that term loosely in describing art.

[3] Again, looking at the more popular consideration of how art is made rather than how insiders might know it to be made.

[4]I’m thinking here of cultural productions with dedicated industries like film and TV that necessarily are collaborations from inception. Art (and art by “art stars”) has tended towards this style of production and is one of symptoms under discussion, but what makes “art” truly the art of our time is that it can still be produced from start to finish by a single person in a single room.

[5] References to it as “late stage” capitalism seem more like wish-castings on the part of certain critics more than anything else.

[6] …or someone else’s vision of what that means.

[7] Although, honestly, just getting the work out of the studio and seen is really motivation enough for most of us.

[8] In the form of both government funded programs and education, and the more direct intervention of law enforcement.

[9] Although the PSAs would certainly be entertaining:

 

“This is your art.”

“This is your art, over-produced and made by someone else hanging in a Gagosian gallery somewhere.”

“Any questions?”

 

[10]Starting roughly when America became (or declared itself) the center of contemporary art in the 1950’s. You can chart other milestones like the Scull auction or the rise of Soho and then Chelsea, or the explosion of art fairs down the long winding road to our current hell.

[11] Surely the analogy to certain giant reptiles of the Cretaceous period has been made by someone by now.

[12]Mass-extinction events tend to do that.

[13]It is worth remembering that for all of the horror that greeted the return of painting and its market in the early Eighties, history has largely corrected itself.

[14]Gallerists have probably noticed these efforts in their in-boxes.

[15]Some of my favorite programs in New York are in artist run spaces: Auxilary Projects, Centotto, Minus Space, Pierogi, and Regina Rex have all been started by artists; the number would multiply exponentially once one starts to consider other spaces, and in as much as artists are always concerned with space, forming their own exhibits in their own spaces has an august history.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 1, 2014 at 1:28 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.

At Work on the “New” Problem of Wade Guyton

Depending on what art world you inhabit and where you spend your time, reactions to Wade Guyton’s work run the gamut from young sensation to collector’s trophy to critical whipping boy to hollow symbol of political inequality. His work is polarizing in a way that recalls the bygone era of the shocking avante garde; it seems some view Guyton and his work with the same suspicion the British public did Carl Andre’s stack of bricks. And just as the cost of Andre’s manipulation of a pedestrian object became a focus of the outrage (and misunderstanding) surrounding his work, so too do critiques of Guyton simply devolve into economic complaint.[1] In a sense art only now has to deal with the implications of mechanization that other laborers dealt with a century ago. In an arena where individual vision sets every artist up as John Henry, Guyton has taken the side of the steam hammer.

I must admit that I missed Guyton’s first exhibitions and came to his work late.[2] I first noticed them only in tiny, glossy reproductions in art magazines[3]; not knowing how they were made, I assumed they were paintings and was struck by the combination of typography (either as a bold, central form or as a group used to articulate a field across the canvas) combined with a disjointed, abject surface. Despite the hard edges, they weren’t perfect geometric renderings; the entire surface was activated with skittering marks and impositions on the form. Of course it turned out that they weren’t paintings, except that of course they are. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Wool (among many others) had already dispensed with brushes for mechanical processes, and as those processes went digital it should not come as any surprise that artists followed suit. Shifting to making paintings with only an Epson printer should not be seen as a radical step; that it is so blindingly obvious in retrospect may account for some of the animosity directed his way.[4] So to must the apparent ease with which he can turn out a show, just as earlier layout designers recognized hours of work now accomplished with a few clicks, Guyton has turned mural-scale painting into an afternoon project. Back when young artists[5] talked matter of factly about process, the labor involved in moving and manipulating stuff was self-evident. Being an artist was work, and many espoused a political affinity with strains of Marxism, or at least a blue collar pragmatism that could be read as such. But to capitalism the point of digital technologies has been to reduce or remove the need for skilled labor wherever possible, and Guyton clearly buys into that when he talks about avoiding the need to work to make his paintings. This isn’t necessarily a problem[6], except that to then talk about the disregard with which he drags and kicks his canvases around the studio floor seems too ingratiating, too much an appeal to the labor of process that he ultimately undermines. Indecision breeds contempt just as easily as familiarity (and by now pretty much everyone is acquainted with Photoshop and Microsoft Word).

Coming out of his Whitney retrospective, the most interesting question was what would he do next? The works on paper were scattered across bright colored flooring in vitrines, as if the artist didn’t trust them to be out on their own. Likewise his sculpture seemed beside the point: a bent metal tube that was previously a chair by Marcel Breuer has a certain frission in the Whitney Museum, but otherwise relies on the name recognition of the artist for aesthetic important.[7] His fabricated “U” sculptures are shiny steel simulacra of the ideas referenced by his painting, available in an assortment of sizes, and are almost nakedly commercial for that variation. The exhibition showed the printed paintings as his one good idea[8]; he had established the utility of his approach, but seemed to be at the boundary of what he could make with his single tool without simply repeating himself and making new versions of the old work ad infinitum.[9] This is complicated by the sense that all of his paintings function as wry comments on their own making, existing both as paintings and “paintings”; the level of quotation and reserve would seem to preclude Guyton from risking failure on the messy and labor intensive investigation that might lead to a new body of work, a new approach, or a new idea.[10]

Instead, Guyton has chosen to focus on the quotation marks, using the paintings as a lens to focus in on the environment and act of looking at the paintings. His new paintings at Petzel further leverage Post-minimalist compositional strategies. Cinemascope swaths of white linen hold striated rectangles[11] that trail off into the remnant tracks and traces of being pulled through the printer’s mechanisms, almost like waste paper run through to clean it out. The stretchers measure the full span of the gallery wall, or separate paintings meet in the corner. These compositional strategies draw parallels to Richard Serra’s use of steel plates as a way to measure and change the gallery space via mass. The surface similarities of steel and printed linen are superficially similar, and while Guyton’s use of black and white achieves a level of austerity that Serra might envy[12], he doesn’t affect the space in the same way. The inherent presence of a Serra makes one consider one’s path around the room and approaching the plate something to be cautiously planned. On the other hand Guyton’s paintings are thin and without any sensation of mass, and the viewer is pulled right up to them to examine the staccato tracks of the printer. Guyton’s paintings lack Serra’s attention to inherent tension, the black rectangles’ measures are arbitrary and don’t push back against the viewer or the space. Just as the final two paintings at the Whitney measured the walls between Breuer’s iconic window without doing much else, these chart a space that is primarily notable for its blankness. These are a sort of reversal from the paintings he installed at the Carnegie International. There he stripped the coat room as far down as it could go, exposing old paint and layers of carpet adhesive hidden by the removed racks. His paintings were handsome example of minimal intervention, mostly white with a few smudged forms to articulate the space. Installed in a space not typically devoted to art he created a lounge more akin to unfinished basement; the same materials that an earlier generation of artists[13] mined and hefted into the gallery shows up here as history left on the floor and wall, left to reflect back at the paintings. But at the end of the day the paintings will still go home to presumably stately environments, devoid of any extra window dressing; these plays on installation are a veneer layered on top of the situation the work inhabits, rather than something that is ingrained in the paintings. With Guyton all we get is the surface.

For all his Warholian slipperiness about content and belief, Guyton’s achievement of his printed paintings is to totally remove the artist’s hand, to make the aura of the artwork indistinguishable from the glow of a screen, and still wind up making paintings that are utterly individual, as unique as a fingerprint. But he’s wound up at the point where the novelty has worn off and the audience doesn’t just want to see pictures of where we’ve been. It’s come time for Guyton to get rid of the quotation marks, to roll up his sleeves, and get to work.

 

Wade Guyton continues at Petzel Gallery in New York City through February 22nd.

 

 


[1] Which are an issue affecting all artists, but become a lens that distorts via magnification as the artist in question becomes more successful; the gravity of money around an artist winds up shaping the discourse like light bending around a dense star.

[2] Or as late as one can come to an artist who’s retrospective spans little more than a decade.

[3] I’ve written elsewhere about my penchant for absorbing art through pictures, and the misunderstanding almost seems part of Guyton’s aesthetic point.

[4] This is not necessarily to say that Guyton got there first either, but he is certainly the standard bearer of “printed paintings” and if we were to rediscover a different pioneer she or he would need to answer the same aesthetic questions as Guyton. The only difference would be that this hypothetical artist would not be held accountable for the sins of the market associated with Guyton.

[5] Starting with the abstract expressionists use of paint as an index of decisions of process and continuing to the post-minimalist extension of that action out into space.

[6] Depending on your feelings about Warhol anyway.

[7] Although, to be fair, this criticism applies to huge swaths of the art made today.

[8] And if it is not clear, I think it is a damn good idea.

[9] And it is safe to say that given his means of production he could easily print on demand enough to more than satisfy (overwhelm) the market.

[10] Of course it’s possible that Guyton really doesn’t care about doing anything new, but since he has not just flooded the market with reprints of his greatest hits and has continued to push at the context his paintings are seen in, I think it is safe to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[11] Which are simply a rescaled and reprinted version of the digital file he used to create his black monochromes that were shown at Petzel in 2007.

[12] All reproductions of Serra’s work are in black and white, no matter the handsome patina of rust or the oily sheen the marred surface the plate holds. I assume this is to emphasize mass and volume, but it nonetheless stage handles the work in an odd fashion.

[13] See Jerry Saltz’s exposition of  Guyton’s connection to Post-minimalism. The connection feels both appropriate and finished to me, perhaps an illustration of why artists shouldn’t get too close to history.

Written by Brian Dupont

February 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

Toward a New Aesthetic: Winning and Losing the Object

The advance of history is (and always has been) intertwined with technology, and as much as new developments in technology and materials have driven aesthetic consideration, the objects one finds in galleries and museums would often not seem out of place in exhibitions from another century. Even as technology has made aesthetic advances possible[1], scholarship has often ignored the material art is made of. New technologies have been slow to find acceptance, if not by artists, then by the structures that guard and perpetuate the canon. It is no small irony then that the most profound innovation in technology has removed the necessity of the object altogether. Just a few years ago it seemed that discussion of the New Aesthetic was everywhere, but whether it was art or design or engineering or history was an open question that fit into the shifting projects found in the hacking culture of digital freelancers and start-ups much more easily than it did for art. Its history[2] is a strange collection digital epiphany and tech curiosities that are difficult to reconcile into a broader aesthetic movement, but nonetheless have managed to focus ideas about the employment of digital media to create art.[3] While digital art already existed[4], the framework of the New Aesthetic is important as the first digitally based aesthetic movement to gain mainstream traction. It posits an aesthetic framework (an “ism” if you like) that goes beyond mere tools of production to aesthetics, theory, and philosophy.

My own consideration of what the digital might bring to art started over beer, and with Greg Borenstein pounding on a bar table declaring that New Aesthetic and new media “would win.”[5] As a painter I am by definition invested in one of the oldest of technologies, and with the curious case of Wade Guyton’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum[6] freshly opened at the time I was very curious as to what “winning” would mean. Left unstated was the time table for the conflict and the ultimate terms of art’s surrender, but when one considers a more nuanced approach to the consumption of media and assimilation of technology, the definition of “victory” is likely to be more glitch-gray than black and white.

For the New Aesthetic to function as an aesthetic description or foundation for the production of art, as opposed to just a broad description of the interaction between culture and technology, it must define a framework that affects human understanding and consciousness at a deep level.[7]  Quirks of technology are easily assimilated and then forgotten or ignored; too often descriptions of the New Aesthetic resorted to an engagement with novelty[8] rather than attempting to assess the primary kernel of its import. Bridle posits the possibilities of an omnipresent digital network as a scaffold on which to frame and (more importantly) construct human interactions as what is fundamentally ‘new’ in the New Aesthetic[9] and this rings true; the evolution of digital networks stands as a shift that may define the transition of one epoch of history to another.[10] It also separates genuinely new ideas from the general explosion of technological advancement[11]: the network (as posited by Bridle) allows for a near infinite speed of transmission and dissemination of data that effectively reduces distances to zero[12], but a mere glitch in a scanned photo or rendered map is not effectively new[13]; robotics and drones allow for the application of work and force by means of data transmission, but machine vision is merely a further extension of previous augmentation of human sight.[14] There will always be endeavors that overlap classifications and defy any set boundaries, but making the effort at taxonomy is a first step in placing the New Aesthetic in a historical framework.

Charting the New Aesthetic’s course from nascent network to digital aesthetic reveals a narrative that mirrors the interaction between photography and the emergence of Modernism. This may be surprising given the New Aesthetic’s emergence in the post-modern, digital era, but it has roots in the photograph’s mechanical expression of vision.[15] Photography was present at and arguably drove the birth of Modernism by assuming[16] the burden of everyday representation from painting. Likewise, the Arpanet was coming on line as the Minimalists and Conceptualists zeroed out the trajectory of the Modernist narrative. Where the Modernist artwork slowly reduced aesthetic investigation to pure form at the hands of a singular genius[17], the networked Postmodern art object grows out of a multiplicity of viewpoints and historical narratives; feminism, multiculturalism, and the histories of different geographic centers allow for the realignment of aesthetic ideas just as packets of data are switched around the network and reassembled into a useable whole. The restructuring of the pathways of interpretation away from a direct circuit is analogous to the (also Postmodern) theory that posits a shift of privilege in which the reader’s primacy in interpretation (and thus creation) of a work becomes paramount. Meaning emerges from the interconnectedness and interaction of the nodes in the network, i.e. the audience, instead of being dictated from on high by the artist. The ramifications for the artwork have been appropriately manifold, but the sea change lies in the relationship between the production of the work and how it is ultimately seen. A hallmark of digital technology in general, and the New Aesthetic specifically, is the possibility of near limitless[18] distribution via digital transmission and (one would eventually assume) production. However an object that is limitless is also by definition common, and therefore working outside the economic strictures of a unique object that propels the current art market. It would be foolish for those building fortunes within the art world to assume that their sale of a unique object will save them from digital encroachment on their business model. The limitations are essentially only of bandwidth; Hollywood movie studios should have seen the threat posed by the digital transfer of content coming as soon as it started to affect the record industry. As the underpinnings of photography’s false scarcity are challenged, the idea of an object that can be instantly copied via a suitable amount of code and an appropriately complex 3-D printer[19] has the potential to turn the concept of unique work of art into a forensic exercise rather than a matter for discerning connoisseurship. This should not be seen as a giant and unimaginable leap; artistic practice is already often turned over to assistants and fabricators, and non-unique works can easily set auction records.[20] The only question is if the change in methods of production will ultimately change the channels of distribution or if the entrenched interests of the market will assimilate new avenues proposed by advances in technology.

Historical precedent follows from art’s service as a tool of communication prior to the elevation of the status of the artist in the Renaissance. Church decorations to instruct and cow the faithful serve the same purpose as works by contemporary art, if a different master. Even as images were usurped by text and printing[21] for basic communication, art maintained a utility for conveying ideas to mass audiences. The history of church decoration gave way to traditions of mural painting, and the ingrained century’s old value of art to a mass audience evolved as the artists themselves supplied themes and direction. The Bauhaus took the evolution a step forward by incorporating industrial production as a theoretical vehicle to reach the masses; that the Bauhaus had a much more holistic view of the potential for integration of diverse media into a cultural movement set a precedent for the rise of the New Aesthetic, as does the fact that both movements feature many designers among their ranks.

A closer antecedent to the potential for the use of industrial fabrication by individual artists can be found in the work of Donald Judd and the Minimalists. Not only did they work with ‘off the shelf’ components of commonly available industrial materials and hardware[22], they were able to operate at a remove as they were able to fabricate their work via plans that could be sent by telegram or placed by simple phone call.[23] Those plans can be seen as Paleolithic versions of the code that will underlie (near) infinitely (re)producible 3-D printed artworks. The mature work of the artists associated with Minimalism brought sculpture to the same ground photography already occupied; the sculpture was no longer an object consisting of specific materials skillfully manipulated by the hand of the artist, rather it became possible to read the necessity of the object as the result of the execution of instructions, plans, or code. Born of common industrial materials, the existence as a set of basic instructions also allowed for the possibility of peculiar manipulations of time and space, with the artwork able to exist or not as needed, to be transmitted easily from place to place, or even to exist simultaneously in two places at once.[24] That the Minimalists recoiled from any of the inherent possibilities their practice opened up ties them to the terminus of Modernism and its exaltation of the singular object, and instead left it to the Conceptual artists that followed closely on their heels to inaugurate the Postmodern object within art. [25]

Where photography’s restructuring of the expectations of how what is “real” really looks is one legacy, another more subtle adjustment lies in simultaneously replacing the artist’s unique facture with a mechanical process that provides a seamless surface and infinitely repeatable image. The challenge was not only to aesthetic ideas and ideals, but to the market that distributed the images. The greater consequence of photography to the salon lay (and still lies) in the correlation of price to aesthetic value where the traditional signifiers of artistic scarcity have been removed. The technology associated with the New Aesthetic cannibalizes Modernist photography’s claims to truth and reality[26] and throws its full weight behind digital, infinitely repeatable manufacture.

In looking at photography’s past as the New Aesthetic’s prologue it is important to note that art and its markets ultimately assimilated photography, and that photography hewed closer to the conventions of painting as commodity rather than effecting a dramatic change in the sale of images.[27] Whatever aid the emergence of photography provided to the birth of modernism, that project was ultimately carried forward within art by painting and the impressionists.[28] In the meantime photography was “ghettoized” as a medium for art, struggling for its technological application as documentation to not hinder its aesthetic potential; furthermore it is debatable if its novelty as collectible object was actually responsible for aesthetic prejudices against the medium.[29] Of course the market for art did not slow down during the interim of photography’s growth and the salons evolved into the current gallery system. Even more fraught for the emergence of the New Aesthetic is that it has arrived on the scene as that system has metastasized along with current rapacious trends in capitalism into an arena where intellectual property is fiercely contested and the distribution of opportunity skews to the very top of the market. If there is a fight within art now, it is not over the aesthetics of the object, but its economics and status as commodity.

In the aftermath of the 1970’s and conceptual art this approach to the art object has only been intermittently implemented. When subsequent movements or generations of artists have engaged with the possibilities inherent in such a “limitless” Postmodern object, they have mostly done so within the gallery system established by the art market. When Felix Gonzalez Torres radically undermined the uniqueness of the object, to the point of giving it away en masse, the artwork somehow remains collectible and valuable; the artists who drastically and most successfully challenged the limits of the art object now have blue chip representation. Art has maintained production and distribution systems that have not changed markedly, even as networked digital technologies have radically altered how most other cultural productions are made and consumed.[30] Despite the theoretical shift to Postmodernism, the production of the art object has largely remained stubbornly Modern: where the modernist artwork is defined by its position as a singular material expression of the artist’s vision[31], the postmodern object decouples the static artwork from any specific material[32] and instead is (theoretically) free to be transmitted, copied, hacked, and recoded. The promise of the New Aesthetic is the marriage of the artwork with the network such that the artist’s output[33] may become as simple, widespread, and easy as everything else that happens on a computer and across the internet.

In the face of such easy facility, with the continuing promise that it will only get easier, the central question (especially as it pertains to “winning”) becomes will enough artists shift to these new materials so that the New Aesthetic becomes the dominate aesthetic? I believe that the greatest factor will be the internalization of these tools by artists, such that they are drawing with code as easily and naturally as they mark a flat surface. Where artists think in terms of process and material, they will continue to doggedly produce discrete things[34] and treat the computer in the studio as just another tool that aids in the making of paintings, photographs, and sculpture. The art market’s ability to assimilate challenges to its hegemony[35] should not be underestimated; So long as artists are producing these things, the market has something to sell. This is a benefit to the artist[36] but it also ties art into the economic structure of capitalism, and compromises the potential of digital art and the New Aesthetic by reinforcing the economic status quo.[37]

As the first draft of art history turns more and more to promotion and discussions of sales figures and auction costs rather than aesthetic discourse, the work that is seen and discussed is work that can be sold and is selling. Perhaps instead of looking at this development in thought with scorn, writers, aestheticians, and theorists should consider if this development heralds a larger coming change in how art is made and distributed. The New Aesthetic has been popularized as the infrastructure of the network has been developed to accommodate global traffic, and that development has largely been driven by capitalist enterprise[38] so it only makes sense that as the population of artists continues to increase they will look for new avenues to show and exhibit their work.[39] The question for artists and the New Aesthetic is what sort of object are they putting on the pedestal, in the window, or on the screen? The emergence of the network portends that it may not be the same as what we have all come to expect, but the inevitable change will mean how the work goes from artist to audience has been completely rethought.


[1] From the importance of tube paints to the development of Impressionism to synthetic polymers and acrylic making color field painting technically feasible, art history tends to favor aesthetic discussions of a philosophical bent.

[2] The name comes from a Tumblr started by James Bridle and blew up with Bruce Sterling’s article for Wired discussing a SXSW panel. If you start following the links you’ll find Bridle’s essay on the same panel and can work your way back through discussions by Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope and Russel Davies that smartly dovetail the New Aesthetic with broader digital concerns in a variety of media and contexts.

[3] After 2 years since its heyday we can see Doug Aitken’s ‘Station to Station’ project linked to Bridle’s terminology, and as that project winds down the auction house Phillips de Pury has made the first foray into auctioning digital art. While the sums were small in relation to what normally constitutes the auction market, this sale represents a major step forward in digital art entering the mainstream art market.

[4] One can go back as far as Manfred Mohr’s experiments with computer generated art. More recently terms like new media art and net art have been used to describe digitally based production. All of the terms seem more descriptive in describing the medium (i.e. akin to “painting” or “photography”)  rather than descriptive of a school of thought (i.e. “Abstract Expressionism” or “Minimalism”).

[5] It is fun to think that artists can still get together and argue the way we imagine they did back in the days of the Cedar Tavern. In addition to Borenstein, the group included artists Kevin McCoy, John Powers, and William Powhida, as well as Joanne McNeil of Rhizome and Bridle himself.

[6] And seemingly caused no small amount of consternation in the digital arts community. Much of the rancor seemed to stem from the assumption that Guyton was an electronic or digital artist who was poorly representing his roots and concerns. However Guyton’s work comes out of a conceptual reaction to painting, and his relation to the technology he employs is much more akin to prior generations’ use (and abuse) of screen printing and other basic tools of mass production; his employment of digital tools is merely a matter of utility.

[7] This may be as close as I ever get to trying to pin down and define the amorphous and variable production that gets labeled as “art.” On one hand this definition feels so incredibly weighty that almost any individual work would not be able to support it, and in that regard it should be pointed out that this applies more to movements consisting of many artists working simultaneously within a single cultural context; on the other hand this definition probably applies to the ‘80s Neo-expressionist painters, so maybe it’s not such a high bar after all.

[8] For instance, the aestheticization of the glitch is hardly new. Richter and Ruff’s respective smears have entered the canon, and rely only on the language of abstraction to raise it beyond a mere error in representation. The revolutionary aspect of misregistrations in digital representations of real space lies not in the error, but in the existence of the underlying system that makes digital mapping and transcription possible in the first place.

[9] One could argue that these interactions go further and facilitate the beginnings of human ‑ machine interactions, but I think that this ascribes a consciousness that is lacking in our silicon counterparts; Sterling is correct in pointing out that such descriptions are essentially fanciful, and obscure the greater focus on what emerging machine processes or “vision” might mean to human consciousness.

[10] The turn to the machine age was largely a measure of a definition of the increased capacity for work. I will leave the political implications of this to the remaining Marxists out there, and instead rely on (very) basic math to indicate the scale of the shift: where work is measured in horsepower, there is a huge transition in the amount of production, but not in the fundamental scale of the measures used. Simply put, a person riding a horse at 30 mph increased their speed tenfold, but the move to a steam locomotive only roughly doubled that (it’s just that the train is now carrying over 100 people and a whole mess of heavy things, and is traveling hundreds of miles without stopping). We’re still only looking at modest jumps in scale that human cognition can easily assimilate. The advent of digital networks shifts the definition of work to the generation and movement of information. In this regard we are seeing jumps in speed (microseconds) and mass/ volume (exabytes and beyond) that are vast orders of magnitude greater. The historical shift represented by the New Aesthetic can be compared to the difference between Galileo walking down the street in Pisa to the Space Shuttle entering orbit to fix the Hubble telescope.

[11] I would argue that this may be an effect of the New Aesthetic Tumblr being more of a search for possible ideas and observations than a tightly curated presentation of such.

[12] Consider how understanding of the recent events in the Egypt and the Middle East differ from previous, “non-networked” social and political events. Reporting is no longer filtered or shaped by media control, but is simultaneously diluted by the sheer volume of information available.

[13] Errors in transcription have been around as long as there has been writing. While these accidents may provide a sense of beauty or an uncanny alteration to how we perceive our interactions, they were supposed to be caught in whatever the contemporary equivalent of the proofing process was; I suspect the fact that we see more such glitches now is a result of the combination  of ever greater output (of course facilitated by the digital utility of the network) and lower editorial standards (of which I and every other self-publisher who lack an editor beyond the software we use are probably guilty of).

[14] Corrective lenses and telescopes having been around for a very long time.

[15] Of course the other side of the New Aesthetic coin is the proliferation and distribution of language as text. This can be traced back at least to Gutenberg, and the transmission of art via printed copies in the form of etchings can be seen as a forerunner of the photographic distribution of multiple copies of the same image.

[16] Or usurping, depending on your point of view.

[17] One that was inevitably white and male.

[18] Any description of the limitless will bump into the technical definition of infinity very quickly, and my description of the ‘limitless object’ is not suggesting anything on a universal, or even galactic magnitude.

[19] Any new technology is always subject to severe limits of engineering that are practically wished away for raw potential. If a 3-D printer is analogous to an automobile, then consider what today’s “model-T” versions will give way to within the next century.

[20] The difference between “5 unique versions” and an “edition of 5” strikes me as  a minor difference aimed at collectors rather than artistic exploration of the differences between versions.

[21] Perhaps the first ‘new aesthetic’ revolution.

[22] Which is just another version of “infinitely reproducible”, and also gives rise to the same problems that dogged photography as a medium.

[23] This had happened before, but Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s use of it was essentially only as a gimmick. Similarly Tony Smith was able to “phone in” Die, but it was really the only project that he did so (probably because the form was about as simple as possible). Judd was able to make his relation with his fabricators central to his practice but not foreground it in the art object as a concern or theme (say the way Jackson Pollock’s process became central to his drip paintings once Hans Namuth’s photographs of him working were released).

[24] See discussion of Count Gussipe Panza’s interaction with Andre and Judd in ‘The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art’ by Martha Buskirk, MIT press. This treatment of the object leads to the possibility of the complete dematerialization of the object allowed for in conceptual art.

[25] Lawerence Weiner: “Statements” (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

[26] As the ubiquity of Photoshop renders the veracity of nearly every image as suspect, the mantle of objective “reality” once claimed by photography must now commonly be recognized as false.

[27] By adopting the conventions of the limited edition, the illusion of scarcity is preserved, even though the negatives of a print usually still exist and more images could be printed. It is a common practice that when such a (usually large scale) photograph is damaged, the conservation treatment is usually to simply reprint the image and then confirm the destruction of the damaged work so that the number of prints in the edition is maintained.

[28] Which when tied to the necessity of the development of tubed paint to Impressionism, is another example of the underlying influence of technology on art.

[29] It certainly did not help that the early limits of the technology severely limited formal options for expression. In this regard the story is the same for each new medium that comes along, and we’ve seen it play out similarly with film, video, sound art, and computer and net-based art. New pioneers begin working (or often more accurately, playing) with a technology, and try to find out just what it can do or how far it can be pushed before it starts to break down and exhibit interesting fissures or glitches that are unacceptable in commercial application. They may not even think of themselves as artists, and often their work disappears from view for not being recognized, collected, and cared for. Of course the same is true of painting, it is just that over 500 years of history has obscured the difficulties of moving from being part of the wall to a portable object, and the shift from guild-era craft to high art.

[30] Consider only what iTunes, Garage Band, digital cameras, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and e-readers have done to the market for music, TV, movies, books, and newspapers and magazines.

[31] A position that is subject to reinterpretation by advances in theory, understanding, or intellectual fashion (even if such revisions do not affect the production of the artwork).

[32] Performance and time-based work being a separate case; its temporal nature can only be experienced directly, and subsequent reference is only to the artifact,  record, documentation, or memory. These may come to act as surrogates for the artwork, but bear a different indexical relationship to the common understanding of an art object that can be returned to as an unchanging entity. It is probably not a coincidence that art media where time played a central role began to fully emerge with the advent of Postmodernism.

[33] Call it work, production, practice, or transmission.

[34] Be it ever more complex productions that challenge architecture or feature films at the top of the market, or seeming small scale, ephemeral gestures that are none the less preserved at the bottom, these works still mostly fit easily into standard taxonomies of art practice.

[35] Where said hegemony used to be confined to the distribution of the artwork, it also now seems to be usurping the interpretation, criticism, and historical narrative of art. As the vast sums of money moving through the upper echelons of the “art world” have rendered interpretation irrelevant and criticism as beside the point (as such analysis does not have any effect on what is bought and sold), the market has begun to dictate what curators and museums preserve and exhibit (by virtue of the people doing the buying simultaneously pricing out said institutions and then turning around to lend or donate said works as members of the museum board), so artifact and scholarship wind up serving the market as well.

[36] Contrary to the romanticization of abject poverty, I have yet to meet an artist who prefers to go to a day job rather than being able to go to their studio.

[37] An artist I know produced an edition of three large scale digital prints of computer rendered imagery for an exhibition, and the gallery asked if she could paint or draw on each print, turning each into unique work. This would have completely compromised the aesthetic intent, removing the viewer’s sense of engaging real life through a mediating electronic screen, and questioning the identities that we present both on-line and in the flesh. The seamless and un/hyper-real crispness of focus on the surface of the paper would’ve been completely disrupted by the addition of pencil or paint (and would have interacted poorly with the imagery in any case, likely looking just slapped on over the top), but the works would then have been unique, and more saleable at a higher price. I am happy to report those prints were shown unaltered, and unhappy to report that they are still rolled in the artist’s studio.

[38] Think of the transition from Napster to  iTunes, the expansion of Amazon.com into all facets of retail, or Hulu challenging network and cable television distribution.

[39] From Artsy to Amazon and Saatchi, and to smaller digital platforms like Paddle 8 or Artsicle, the network provides a much greater breadth of economic possibilities. Many of these players are working on lower rungs of the market, but this offers more possibilities to new or emerging artists. It also offers a greater ease of entry into the market for new collectors, which is a way to grow the audience for art outside of just the outsized ticket line for the next museum blockbuster.

Written by Brian Dupont

October 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

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