Glamorize Your Messes
Jack Smith, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York
". . . in the middle of the city should be a repository of objects that people don’t want anymore, which they would take to this giant junkyard. That would form an organization, a way that the city would be organized . . . the city organized around that. I think this center of unused objects and unwanted objects would become a center of intellectual activity. Things would grow up around it." —Jack Smith, in an interview with Sylvere Lotringer, "Uncle Fishook and the Sacred Baby Poo Poo of Art," from Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, originally published in Semiotext(e) 3, no. 2 (1978).
The building that houses P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City was originally a school. It was built between 1893 and 1906, and served generations of teachers, administrators, school children, and parents. It was closed by the New York City Board of Education in 1963. Alanna Heiss, P.S. 1’s Executive Director and Founder, began her involvement with transforming abandoned or underutilized buildings into exhibition and performance spaces in 1971 with a non-profit organization, The Institute of Art and Urban Resources, Inc. She reclaimed P.S. 1 for art exhibitions and performances in 1976, when the first art exhibition was held there. The fact that P.S. 1 is a recycled school building adds a layer of meaning to its art exhibitions — the building itself projects bohemian resourcefulness, and the setting lends a improvised, provisional edge to the work on display. P.S. 1’s location in Queens can also make visiting it an adventure — while it is geographically close to art museums and galleries in Manhattan, the streets of Long Island City can be confusing after getting off the subway, and actually finding it can be disorienting for a first-time visitor.
Recently, P.S. 1 shut its doors for a couple of years to make much-needed repairs and to expand its exhibition space, re-opening in October, 1997. The renovation and expansion of the building cost $8.5 million. Architect Fred Fisher’s design has reoriented the entrance (what was once the back of the building is now an impressive entryway and sculpture garden) and added a number of amenities (increased exhibition space, new bathrooms, a cafe, and large elevators) without sacrificing some of P.S. 1’s funkier features (peeling paint on some walls and old stairwells throughout). At a time of multimillion dollar museum expansions and the construction of huge new museums, like Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and Richard Meier’s Getty Museum, P.S. 1 makes a virtue of (relative) thrift, finding value and potential in what other people have neglected. Unlike some of New York City’s older art museums, like the Whitney and the Guggenheim Museum, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center is obviously not named for a wealthy founder, and it receives financial support from a variety of city and state agencies, as well as from foundation, corporation, and individual contributions.
A re-purposed school like P.S. 1 is an ironic place to see an exhibition of contemporary art. Schools may be nurturing environments where students develop, grow, and learn to take calculated risks, but they are also places where children learn to conform and to deal with coercive institutional authority. In the U.S., public support of art is often justified through art’s utilitarian, educational functions and the positive impact it has on the community. There’s a long tradition of artists supporting themselves by working as educators, and of policy makers rationalizing the public support of art by emphasizing its educational, as well as aesthetic, qualities. At the same time, there is a history of deep-seated official ambivalence toward art, which periodically becomes open hostility. There was a bittersweet quality to seeing an overview of Jack Smith’s artistic career — the first retrospective of his work — at P.S. 1. Jack Smith (1932-1989) may have been an unlikely teacher, but his work was profoundly influential for a number of important artists from the 1960s to the present. With a little imagination, and in spite of its dramatic face-lift, the building housing P.S. 1 can be related to Jack Smith’s aesthetic, which found beauty in piles of garbage.
"Jack Smith: Flaming Creature" presented Smith as an underground renaissance man, featuring his activities on a variety of fronts — photography, film, performance, writing, multimedia events, costume design, and drawing. In spite of Smith’s periodic notoriety in the New York avant-garde, his work was not widely known at the time of his death, and the exhibition was a comprehensive argument for his art historical importance, making its points through detailed explanatory labels and an exhaustive accumulation of objects — photos, drawings, collages, costumes, film clips, tapes, and props. Smith’s art and life were almost inseparable, the exhibition made this point by including a lot of personal memorabilia, such as ephemera, letters, old magazines, and thrift shop exotica. Smith was as concerned with the process of making art as he was with material results, and because of his ambivalence about preserving his work (and also because his poverty of means reflected real-life poverty), many of the objects on display had to be extensively restored or recreated for the exhibition. There was something a little strange about seeing so much of the material detritus of Smith’s life displayed in vitrines and explained in exhaustively detailed wall labels. At times, the exhibition seemed to be on the verge of sanitizing Smith’s work, turning his objects into exhibits in a museum of unnatural history. Smith could be an extremely difficult person to deal with, and even though he was recognized as important artist (particularly during the 1960s), for reasons ranging from the artist’s mood swings to art world politics, it’s difficult to imagine an exhibition like this taking place while Smith was alive.
At its best, Smith’s work is disarmingly powerful, and from Flaming Creatures to his later performances, it has moments of manic brilliance. It can be playful and entertaining, while simultaneously being difficult, haunted, and genuinely strange. Smith’s love of surface decoration, dressing up in costumes, glitter, and low-rent exotica contrasted with a darkly provocative side. His work frequently blurred distinctions between what might be intentional and accidental, and plumbed the heights and depths of a compelling but almost hopelessly idiosyncratic artistic point of view. "Jack Smith: Flaming Creature" made it clear why Smith attracted the support of writers and critics like Susan Sontag and J. Hoberman, and why he inspired artists, filmmakers, performers, and avant-garde theater directors including Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Nan Goldin, but it also showed some of the hopeless, technically ambivalent qualities of his artistic approach. While some of his work, like his drawings, can be unapologetically crappy, Smith’s seemingly amateurish, slapdash efforts in a variety of media make sense when seen as part of an unrelentingly personal body of work.
The first room in the exhibition made a case for considering Smith as an early champion of color fine art photography. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, most fine art photographers, like Robert Frank, Minor White, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, and Harry Callahan, worked almost exclusively in black and white. Smith’s color photographs, taken between 1957 and 1961, were elaborately staged, but like much of Smith’s work, many of the original prints are lost or are self-destructing, falling apart and faded almost beyond recognition. Fortunately, the negatives survived, and new, enlarged prints were made for the exhibition. The costumed figures in these photographs looked like refugees from a perverse, nightmarish children’s story; and seeing them in sequence created a feeling of cinematic dream narrative. Smith’s hand-made book of tipped-in black-and-white photographs, The Beautiful Book (1962), showed similar cinematic qualities, and was even subtitled "fumetto for a silent movie" on the cover. Published by Piero Heliczer, The Beautiful Book featured photos of a cast of half-naked friends and collaborators, like Marian Zazeela, in compositions that were both sexually charged and absurd. One photograph is a portrait shot of a semi-naked, ecstatically smiling woman and a naked, laughing middle-aged man. The man is wearing a goofy mask over his eyes and nose, and the woman is holding his penis.
In addition to featuring photographic prints, the exhibition organizers also recreated some of Smith’s slide shows, such as Gas Stations of the Cross, screening them on television monitors. It was a little hard to know how to judge these — it was fun to see them, but something essential was lost in the translation. One can only imagine the way they were originally screened, in a downtown loft with Smith himself manning the slide projector, slowly changing slides and cackling to himself while playing old records.
Smith’s artistic reference points ranged from early silent movies to the camp Arabian exotica of 1940s Hollywood films, filtered through a druggy, flamboyantly deranged underground sensibility. His re-created costumes, displayed on mannequins with glitter-covered eyelids, were goofily dazzling, using sequins, ostrich feathers, strands of fake pearls, fake flowers, taffeta, glitter-tipped shoes, velvet, veils, big hats, turbans, flimsy veils full of holes, and more glitter to create a sense of seductively loony, edgy fantasy. Smith’s lobster costumes, beaded brassieres, and costumes covered with three or more breasts were examples of home-grown surrealism, and his use of toys as props, like his stuffed penguin costar, Yolanda, and his prop made of two toy monkeys sewn together like Siamese twins, could be seen as antecedents of the work of contemporary artists like Mike Kelley.
Little index cards that Smith had scrawled aphorisms on were included in rooms throughout "Jack Smith: Flaming Creature." A particularly apt one was "Glamorize your messes." Smith considered his Lower East Side apartment one of his major artistic achievements, and bits and pieces of it were installed in one room, including wall fragments, old toys, and other exotically Baghdadian artifacts. The room also featured a tape of Smith’s stoned, giggling voice reading his own surreal, Burroughs-like prose. Since art and life were so deeply interconnected in Smith’s case, the inclusion of pieces of his apartment (The painting of the milk shake queens! The poetry of a discarded platform shoe!) transcended fetishism and made a great deal of sense.
Smith made no secret of his homosexuality, but his work was beyond "queer" — it dealt with the mystery and humor of human sexuality in a much broader sense. One of the things that made Flaming Creatures seem dangerous to conservatives was not only its flaunting of flaccid penises, but its orgiastic strangeness. Flaming Creatures was declared obscene by the New York Criminal Court in 1964, and was the subject of court battles over censorship throughout the 1960s. "Jack Smith: Flaming Creature" concluded with wall-sized video projections from three of Smith’s films — Scotch Tape (filmed in 1959), excerpts from Flaming Creatures (1962-63), and a few minutes from his unfinished color film, Normal Love (begun in 1963). These clips provided a glimpse of Smith’s amazing cinematography. His baroque sense of composition, the haunting quality of his imagery, and his cast of untrained actors that included transvestite "superstars" (some, like Mario Montez, appeared later in films by Andy Warhol) gave his movies the vitality and surprise of early silent film.
Smith was not a political artist like Hans Haacke, but he was profoundly aware of the problems inherent in capitalism, and of the painful dilemmas facing artists living in a rented world. So what do we make of this tribute to Smith, so lovingly presented by curators Ed Leffingwell, J. Hoberman, and Larry Rinder? In spite of a few small lapses, we can be grateful — to P.S. 1, for mounting the exhibition, and to Smith himself, for his courage, and for his real artistry — his ability to make something brilliant from what other people have neglected or discarded, and then have it survive resurrection in an institutional context.
The following reviews were originally published in German translation in Texte zur Kunst. The original text appears below.
Messes, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 30, June 1998, 154-158.
Jim Shaw, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 25, March 1997, 117-119.
Pepón Osorio, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 24, November 1996, 171-174.
Abstraction in the Twentieth Century, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 22, May 1996, 220-223.
Mike Kelley, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 21, March 1996, 183-184.
John Miller, Texte zur Kunst Nr. 18, May 1995, 177-179.
The Sleep of Reason
Metro Pictures, New York
Jim Shaw has been documenting his dreams since 1987, drawing scenes from them and writing narrative descriptions on the back. In his exhibition, "The Sleep of Reason," Shaw recreated art objects that he remembered from his dreams. The exhibition's title referred to Goya's Los Caprichos aquatint, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," which shows a sleeping figure at a desk (presumably an artist) surrounded by flying owls. The title of Goya's print can be construed in two distinct ways: as an argument for art's need to be informed by reason, or as a strategy for producing irrational, disturbing images. Shaw has used the title before, in artwork from his earlier series, "My Mirage," and his continuing interest in it seems to refer to both interpretations of its meaning. "The Sleep of Reason" was a virtual warehouse of "monstrous" objects that Shaw remembered from his dreams — paintings, sculptures, photographs, and mini-installations — representing a wide variety of artistic genres, including abstraction, comic books, surrealism, and funky representation. Shaw also provided gallery-goers with pages of narrative descriptions of the dreams that the objects appeared in, and took the first lines of the dream narratives for their titles. "The Sleep of Reason" was both eclectic and deeply personal, and Shaw's approach — remaking work he remembered having "seen" while asleep — created a sense of objectivity and detachment while providing a disarmingly funny and naked view of his own personality and artistic outlook. His reproduction of dreamed art objects established an odd chain of artistic causality, influence and creation, in that many of the artworks were influenced by or referred to other artworks, creating a weird ecology of influence.
Shaw has said that "you can't disassociate yourself from surrealism if you're working with dreams," and some of the dream-based artworks in "The Sleep of Reason" referred directly to the artwork of teen-fave surrealists such as Salvador Dali and Matta. At the same time, Shaw's surrealism is substantially different from their technically slick approaches, as well as the more experimental and intuitive surrealism of artists like Miró. While surrealists were concerned with traditional painting techniques or finding new ways of painting as much as in trying to represent the unconscious, in "The Sleep of Reason," Shaw's conceptual strategy placed less emphasis on technical polish or innovation than on a straightforward, sometimes knowingly clumsy, artistic style that conveyed a sophisticated, even virtuosic combination of representation and narrative. While Shaw owed a great deal to the traditions of dadaist and surrealist object making, the narrative aspects of "The Sleep of Reason" were more reminiscent of examples of surrealist filmmaking, such as Buñuel's "The Age of Gold." Shaw's exhibition was also a reminder that unconscious imagery is not constant from generation to generation — while human impulses and instincts may not change much, overt dream images, the "set dressing" of the unconscious, are grounded in very specific historical times and places. Shaw's dreams are packed with characters, objects, and references that could only have occurred in his (and our) own time.
"The Sleep of Reason" showed the power of popular culture and teenage tastes, and their resonance throughout adulthood. The objects in "The Sleep of Reason" were similar to those in Shaw's earlier series, "My Mirage"(a series of artworks about a fictional character named Billy that included encyclopedic references to 1960s and 1970s pop culture for kids, including collectible monster cards, comic books, rock album cover art, and high school yearbooks). While "The Sleep of Reason," like "My Mirage," included cultural references that had perversely nostalgic overtones (Emerson, Lake and Palmer! Basil Wolverton! Kelly Freas!), they were clearly a part of the artist's formative experiences and outlook that have had a continuing significance for him. Shaw's dream objects also included religious art, as well as artwork he saw in galleries, in stores, and work that he'd made and was showing to other artists. Rather than focusing on one genre of dream objects, the exhibition's emphasis was on inclusiveness, rather than on aesthetic exclusion. While Shaw did not analyze the contents of his dreams, "The Sleep of Reason" could be seen as an example of a highly personalized cultural anthropology, in which the artist allowed viewers intimate glimpses of his own subconscious sense of family, career, friends, pop culture, and personal fantasy.
Like "My Mirage," "The Sleep of Reason" was both intensely personal in content and feeling, but also imposed a clear narrative distance between the artist and his subject matter. By focusing on the art objects he remembered from his dreams (which often were not "his," but which he had "observed"), Shaw was able to create a similar sense of objectivity; but while by remaking forms of representation had lodged in his brain, he gave himself a great deal of latitude to explore his own subjectivity. The artist's bravery in not censoring the sometimes cheesy, sleazy imagery of his dreams can be interpreted as an act of personal courage and self acceptance that defied many of the impersonal aesthetic norms of postmodern art. Like his friend Mike Kelley's exhibition, "Toward a Utopian Arts Complex," Shaw's "The Sleep of Reason" could be seen as an outgrowth of the artist's earlier rejection of abstract expressionist pedagogy and its puritanism regarding representation. While the process of artistic socialization often demands a successive dismissal of "immature" childhood and adolescent tastes, Shaw's exhibition was a return of the repressed, both metaphorically and literally.
While Shaw's use of dreams for his subject matter gave him a certain amount of freedom from some aesthetic rules and regulations, his artworks were grounded in other restrictions and limitations. Dreams are constructions of realities, and these are produced by social conditions. Rather than being a reflection of liberation, Shaw's dream images showed a number of aspects of Shaw's social ties and relationships — for example, the settings of dreams being in his hometown in Michigan; the presence of family members, friends, and colleagues in dreams; and professional and sexual anxieties rearing their troubling heads. Shaw is clearly not a folk artist, but the artworks in "The Sleep of Reason" shared some of the qualities that made his 1991 exhibition of "Thrift Store Paintings" appealing: like the amateur paintings he had collected, they were rich in content; simultaneously innocent and somewhat perverse; and accessible and brave. And like his thrift store paintings, some of the artworks in "The Sleep of Reason" can be characterized as conservative. While Shaw's work can be understood in relationship to art brut and Chicago imagism, it is not, strictly speaking, an outgrowth of those approaches. Though Shaw shares a similar interest in outsider art, his main concern is with using traditional approaches to art as elements of an innovative conceptual strategy.
Sigmund Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious," and Shaw's dream objects from "The Sleep of Reason" included examples of what Freud called "condensation" (the distillation of unconscious fantasies into a distinct image), such as a picture of Shaw brushing his penis's teeth, or a painting he had seen, featuring a chair with breasts and a buzzsaw coming out of the seat. These images were simultaneously funny and disarming in their frank presentation of sexual fantasies and anxieties, and were disturbingly memorable. Shaw's artistic process must have included a certain amount of forgetting, repression, and reinterpretation (or "secondary revision"), but it is remarkable how much he was able to remember and recreate in his work. While materialists may dismiss dreams as irrelevant to our day-to-day struggles, Shaw's "The Sleep of Reason" was an obsessive tribute to the importance of dreams and fantasies, and their continuing relevance for art.
Badge of Honor
Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
April 25-June 15, 1996
In the past two decades, the prison and jail population of the United States has increased dramatically — the Bureau of Justice's statistics indicate that in the years 1980 to 1993, it rose from 480,000 to 1.3 million inmates. Russia alone exceeds the U.S. in its rate of incarceration, according to The Sentencing Project, a national organization that conducts research on criminal justice issues. And while in the early 1980s violent criminals made up the majority of prisoners, that is no longer the case. In "Americans Behind Bars: The International Uses of Incarceration 1992-1993," Marc Maurer, The Sentencing Project's Assistant Director, noted that the "war on drugs," along with criminal justice policies that emphasize harsh sentencing, have led to a situation in which nonviolent offenders make up the majority of those serving time in America's prisons.
These recent trends are part of the unstated social context of Pepón Osorio's Badge of Honor, an installation dealing with imprisonment and family separation. Osorio developed Badge of Honor's underlying themes in consultation with community groups in a predominately Hispanic and African American neighborhood in North Newark, New Jersey. The artist met with representatives of social service organizations and community groups to identify important issues for members of the neighborhood that could be a source of the subject matter of the exhibition. Osorio also collaborated with members of the community in other ways: some residents of the neighborhood helped with the construction of the installation when it was first exhibited in a Newark storefront in the summer of 1995; and the artist held informal discussions on its themes there. The installation subsequently traveled to the Newark Museum in September before being shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City.
While not specifically didactic in its intentions, Badge of Honor's community-based approach to installation art brings to mind Paolo Friere's educational theories outlined in Education for Critical Consciousness, which emphasized the importance of researching the vocabulary of the groups to be reached through education and breaking down authoritative relationships through collaboration. Like other socially conscious installation artists, such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Martha Rosler, and Group Material, Osorio uses found objects for the concrete reality and meaning they bring to his work, unlike contemporary artists who use them for ironic purposes. At the same time, his installations create a feeling of magic realism through their cultural allusions.
While Osorio worked with Newark community members on Badge of Honor in a variety of ways, the imagery and artistic approach of the installation were clearly his, and not the result of a group decision-making process. In Badge of Honor, as in his previous installations, Osorio used kitschy domestic decoration, socially conscious references, and theatrical elements to explore aspects of the Latino experience in the United States. Osorio's use of kitsch is both affectionate and critical, and reflects the complexity of his feelings about his Puerto Rican roots. While his use of kitsch poses some dilemmas, in that his use of cliched objects could subtly reinforce stereotypes about the Latino community, Osorio manages to circumvent predictable reactions to the use of gaudy, mass-produced domestic decoration in art. As Coco Fusco noted in "Vernacular Memories: Pepon Osorio," the artist's "familiarity with and affection for his own culture plus his ability to tease out latent meanings from everyday life allow him to use kitsch in a critical way that simultaneously indulges in sentimentality and reveals its political and satirical edge." In Badge of Honor, this use of kitsch became even more meaningful in its contrast with parts of the installation that were almost devoid of decoration.
Badge of Honor consisted of two rooms side by side — a prison cell and a teenage boy's fantasy bedroom, featuring two large black-and-white videos projected onto opposite walls of the rooms. The jail cell was spartan and oppressively institutional, with a few personal touches — small family photographs on the wall, accenting the bleakness of the black bars, yellow cell walls, and sparse furnishings. A cot was lit from underneath, with neatly folded clothes on top, alongside carefully stacked cartons of cigarettes. Other objects in the cell included a few disposable razors and a tube of Crest toothpaste. The cell's institutional deprivation contrasted with the boy's bedroom, which overflowed with material objects that conveyed a teenager's hero worship and fantasy life, including objects with personal, ethnic, cultural, and religious significance, to the point of fetishism: baseball cards completely covering a wall, with sculptures of hands holding basketballs jutting out from it; a lamp made from a basketball trophy; cheap, garish sculptures of ringed fists studding bedroom furniture; a painting; a Puerto Rican flag over the bed; basketballs; posters of basketball stars like Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley, posters of other heroic figures like kung fu star Bruce Lee and Lou Diamond Phillips in La Bamba; disc jockey equipment, a stereo and records; a television and a computer; a bed with family photos on printed on the pillows; a flowered quilt; a floor made of mirrored tiles; an altarpiece-like dresser covered with religious medals and images of sports figures; a bicycle; a large number of sneakers; science fiction toys; and birthday balloons. The videos in each of the rooms created an artificial, yet poignant, dialogue between Nelson Gonzales, Sr., an inmate imprisoned in Northern State Penitentiary for a drug-related burglary, and his real-life son, Nelson Gonzales, Jr. These were taped by Osorio at the prison and in the son's home. The rooms were like stage sets, the video projections assuming the roles of actors or the subjects of interviews in a documentary, adding human faces to the spaces they inhabited.
Osorio has said that he wanted Badge of Honor not only to be about actual prisons, but also metaphorical ones, including the institutional and economic traps that can separate families due to financial demands, forcing both parents to work or to hold down two jobs simply to keep treading water. The installation showed the material and psychological aspects of prison to include repression of ethnic identity and fantasy, as well as social isolation and institutional deprivation; while home was represented as a place where personal, ethnic, and cultural identity can be given free reign. At the same time, the material excesses of the boy's bedroom suggested that the son was attempting to compensate for his father's absence through hero worship and conspicuous consumption.
The video projections of Nelson Gonzales, Sr. and his son highlighted how much the father was missed, despite the negative consequences that his criminal activities had for his family. Nelson Sr., missing some teeth and in prison garb, answered personal questions posed by his son, the dialogue giving both the opportunity to express their mutual concern for each other. Nelson Jr. asked "Dad, do you remember when I was born?", "Dad, do you love mom?", and "Dad, how much do you care about me?", and his father's answers were both articulate and grounded in a real affection for his wife and son. Nelson Jr. described a dream of reconciliation with his dad, and said he would be willing to give up all of his material things for his father to be home with him. He also thanked his father for treating him with respect, saying that even though he "got left back" in school three times, he never called him stupid.
In Badge of Honor, Osorio's artistic commitment to using his own cultural background, coupled with community-based collaboration, reflected both an interest in examining the difficulties faced by a marginalized community and in expressing ethnic pride. One of the problems in the relocation of Badge of Honor from North Newark to New York City's SoHo was a loss of some of its immediacy and relevance — rather being close to the vitality of the North Newark streets and the concerns of the people who participated in the original installation, in SoHo, Badge of Honor was a bit like a fish out of water, and it was hard to tell if gallery goers gave the installation enough time and attention for its messages to sink in. In spite of this, the SoHo installation showed a richness of specific cultural experience and a sense of social struggle that rarely surface in the art world. While the exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts did not have the same meaning for the art world as for the community Osorio originally collaborated with, Badge of Honor rewarded those willing to take the time to pay serious attention to it. By using innovative artistic means to describe the lives of ordinary people and the prisons they find themselves in, Osorio showed a number of possibilities for promoting critical consciousness and cultural democracy through art.
Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline
February 9-May 12, 1996
In his catalogue essay for "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," curator Mark Rosenthal argues that nonobjective art has been an innovation in culture as significant as "the invention of the computer." At first, this seems to be an overstatement. While abstraction was a dramatic departure into unknown aesthetic territory in early 20th century Europe and the United States, a reason for popular resistance to it over the years has been that, rather than seeming to be something new, its basic formal components are quite commonplace. For example, spontaneous, free abstraction, like the work of Kandinsky in 1912, has sources in the unselfconscious artwork of very young children, while formalist abstraction’s approaches to shape and color, as in the work of Mondrian or Malevich, can be seen in architectural details and geometric illustrations. Abstraction’s innovation was to isolate and develop these approaches for European and American art audiences, using them as metaphors for spirituality, social progress, and as rejections of kitsch. On further reflection, a comparison of abstraction with computers is more apt. Like the popular distrust of automation, one reason for resistance to abstract art was because it upset long-standing expectations concerning work and compensation. Abstract artists have persistently challenged pre-modernist ideas about value in art, turning them upside-down. They have questioned the worth of old-fashioned manual labor in art, making virtues of radical simplicity, spontaneity, and the adoption of new technologies. Throughout the 20th century, abstraction, like automation, has created ruptures with the past, offering new possibilities while making many traditional skills seem obsolete.
"Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," is an interesting, though uneven, overview of abstraction as a continuous practice in 20th century art. The exhibition is itself a kind of abstraction. Because the history of nonobjective art is so vast and complex, "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" is a distillation of curatorial and institutional points of view, including grace notes, masterpieces, unsurprising choices, and a few selections that are ultimately baffling. It does not include the artwork of precursors or related developments like cubism (though it does include some dadaism and abstract surrealism), instead focusing on exclusively nonobjective artworks by artists from Europe and the United States, covering the time period between 1912 and the present. Though abstraction has had its ups and downs, its treatment as a continuous phenomenon relies on storytelling devices, with dramatic beginnings in the work of Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin, and Mondrian; a heroic middle period, seen in the works of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Reinhardt and in minimalist paintings by Martin and sculptures by Andre, Judd and Serra; as well as the ambiguous ending of the more-or-less postmodern work of our own time, including recent Stella, Richter, and others. The installation also can be seen to gradually reveal the mutual interdependence of abstract artists and the institutions that present their work, like the Guggenheim. By following abstraction’s development chronologically, one can see the success and acceptance of both artists and modern art museums over time, from art works that are somewhat modest in scale, either made for private homes or as models for public projects, to large scale, site-specific works that are celebrations of the museum’s secular space. However, the exhibition also makes it clear that the biggest and most recent artworks of this type aren’t necessarily the best. There is a diffusion of purpose and an emptiness of gesture in the works by Frank Stella and Richard Long that were created specifically for this exhibition.
"Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" takes advantage of the architecture of the Guggenheim to reinforce this basically linear, chronological approach. Just past the installation of Richard Serra’s work in the museum’s lobby, it moves from abstraction’s relatively small-scale beginnings in the first galleries at the bottom of the ramp (though including ambitious proposals, particularly in the case of Tatlin’s model for Monument to the Third International), to large-scale contemporary pieces at the top, near the skylight. The new galleries that adjoin the main ramp, as well as other parts of the museum, create opportunities for juxtapositions and digressions that allow breaks from this text-book approach to art history. One of the unexpected pleasures in the exhibition is an installation in the Thannhauser galleries based on the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which Solomon R. Guggenheim opened to exhibit his art collection in 1939. The low-hanging artworks, plush gray carpet, pleated velour walls, comfy seating, and classical music playing in the background offer another way of entering into the history of abstraction. Not only does it provide an interesting historical context for seeing abstract works of art, it also gives some relief from the more clinical way that they are usually presented.
Abstraction began as a radical alternative to traditional genres in painting and sculpture, including portrait, still life, landscape, and history paintings. In this exhibition, one can see that while abstract artists rid their work of representation, they created a new set of artistic genres. These include the geometric, formalist strategies originating with Malevich and Mondrian; the expressionistic approaches of Kandinsky and Pollock; and the social, environmental, or architectural methods of Tatlin, Judd, and Smithson. This exhibition shows the constant tension between abstract artists’ searching for aesthetic breakthroughs and their reliance on increasingly established approaches to abstraction throughout the 20th century. The "total risk, freedom, discipline" that Eva Hesse saw in abstraction in 1969, quoted in the exhibition’s title, could just as well be a way of describing how abstract artists have had to deal with the marketplace in their decision-making, as much as it describes the adventurous qualities of nonobjective art. The goal of many abstract artists in this exhibition has been to reduce art to its most basic and timeless forms, but the diversity of artistic approaches that are included in each of their approaches to art is a reminder of the degree to which they have had to constantly reinvent abstraction, not only to establish their reputations, but in order to keep nonobjective art fresh.
One of the keys to the longevity of abstract art (aside from its enshrinement in cultural institutions like the Guggenheim Museum) has been the ability of its greatest artists to create powerful, persuasive works with simple, almost impoverished, means. When abstract art succeeds, it can knock you out or blow your mind. Jackson Pollock’s paintings alone made this exhibition worth seeing. The best work in "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" shows the continuing vitality of one of abstraction’s basic principles — that form, not subject matter, can convey the most ineffable emotions and profound ideas in art. At the same time, even within the rarefied, highly selective environment of this show, one can see that abstraction is not and has never been a fool-proof recipe for creating challenging or resonant art. The history of abstraction includes a wide a range of near-misses, and its radical ideas have often been the basis of academic dogma. Many abstract artists have experienced profound anxiety and doubt about their work, but have often countered those feelings with an intensity of belief in the potential power and importance of abstraction. "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" seems to show this passion dissipating over time — it captures the growing irony and ambivalence that have accompanied abstract artists’ relentless search for the new, as well as the cheerfully corporate overtones of their works’ spectacular institutional success.
While the exhibition’s chronological approach shows abstract art’s historical evolution, it would have been interesting if more space had been given to examinations of the relationships between artists who had similar interests but who worked in different times and places. There were also a number of significant individuals and approaches to abstraction that were missing: the work of female abstract artists in general, including Sonia Delaunay, Bridget Riley, Louise Nevelson, and Lee Krasner; Duchamp’s kinetic art, as well as any electronic art and abstract video art; Jasper Johns’s abstract work, Sol Lewitt, Twombly, and Marden; and other interesting figures like Robert Irwin, Mel Bochner, and Michael Heizer. Of course, some gaps are inevitable in any exhibition that intends to cover so much territory — like a single CD recording that tries to provide an overview of the history of rock-and-roll, the choices in this exhibit not only represent clear value judgments, but probably reflect the influence of space limitations, availability of work, and other factors.
In the Middle of the Day
Metro Pictures, New York
February 23-April 1, 1995
John Miller is best known for his brown paint-covered artworks made from toys and other objects. Their imagery evokes entropy — the aftermath of a funky shit storm. His artworks are also quite controlled, critical reflections on production and waste. "In the Middle of the Day" was a departure for the artist. While the exhibition included examples of Miller's brown-painted sculptures, a continuous row of photographs (both color and black-and-white) dominated the four walls of the exhibition. "In the Middle of the Day" also included a chair, a table, and other objects from the artist's studio, as well as an audiotape of the artist's voice playing from a hidden tape recorder. Through its eclectic approach to materials and methods, "In the Middle of the Day" raised questions about the value of ordinary experience, of work and leisure; of the ways artistic personality is constructed; and of what is preserved and discarded in daily life, art and culture.
I saw photographs from "In the Middle of the Day" at a studio visit before the exhibition opened. At that time, some of the photos were hanging; others were stacked on the floor; leaning against the wall. While the photographs' content — informal moments between noon and two p.m. in New York, California and Germany — was obviously unchanged in their move from Canal Street to Metro Pictures, their installation amplified their meaning, and underlined their importance not only as individual works of art, but as the elements of a total work of art.
The photographs were more-or-less deadpan street scenes, landscapes and interiors, taken at a time of day when working people are eating lunch or taking a break. They documented places and people at moments that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Rather than being intimately voyeuristic, they were analytically, even clinically, detached. While Miller's subject matter was reminiscent of the work of other photographers — for example, Atget's pictures of Paris or Robert Frank's photos in The Americans — their installation created a similar feeling to the work of conceptual artist Douglas Heubler, whose projects include a stated intention to photograph every person on earth.
The presence of Miller's chair and work table alongside his photographs and sculptures helped to raise the question of what defines an artist's point of view, and also of what ultimately gives objects significance. When possessions are exhibited they become relics, not only of personal life, but of larger patters of production, consumption, and the ascription of meaning. Seeing Miller's chair, table and art materials in "In the Middle of the Day" alongside his photographs and sculptures was different from seeing Monet's palette and work table in a museum. Though they were elevated by being placed on pedestals, they had the potential of returning to their original functions or being abandoned. Their inclusion subtly emphasized that things have meaning because of what they are and who produced them, as well as because of who owns and preserves them. "In the Middle of the Day" was an indirect self portrait, in which the artist managed to be both present and absent. The exhibition also suggested that the moments of leisure and work captured in photographs or remembered through material possessions are just a few stages in a process of production and use — in personal life, leading to forgetting or valuing experiences; and in culture, to the landfill, the private collection, or the museum.
Abstract art is ambiguous in content, and throughout the 20th century it has been a screen for the projection of values, not only by individual artists, but in terms of the fantasies, hopes, and aspirations of the historical periods in which works of art were made. "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" shows that the most compelling abstract artworks still seem timeless, almost musical, and remain thought-provokingly critical in relationship to their chief targets, such as popular culture and the art of the past. Still, while enjoying the aesthetic experiences that abstract art provides, it also seems worthwhile to remember what this exhibition excludes: political statements, accessible images, sexuality, direct humor, regional references, and countless other potential resources for art. "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century" shows the enormous contribution abstract art has made to our culture, but it also makes one grateful for other approaches to art that are not trying to achieve its exclusive purity.
Utopian schemes embody a desire for social harmony, but they are inevitably based on repression. Their practitioners' denial of individual and cultural differences can result isolation and intolerance, and in extreme cases, the creation of gross injustice and terrible violence. Mike Kelley's art exhibition, "toward a utopian arts complex," satirized utopianism by exploring his memories of his education during the 1960s and 1970s. While schools and universities sometimes present their missions in a utopian light, Kelley described his experiences in art school as a form of child abuse.
It's easy to understand Kelley's ambivalence about his education. While formal education can create opportunities for growth and personal advancement, educational institutions can also instill habits of mind that reinforce the status quo and protect the interests of educators. The study of art can be both challenging and therapeutic, and art education can be seen as a lifeline for many adolescents, but the process of going through art school can also be a source of trauma, dismay, and disillusionment. Though teenagers may be drawn to art because it offers possibilities for rebellion and self assertion, and the role of an artist may seem to be a liberating one, art school demands the acceptance of new rules, a new kind of conformity, and a series of negotiations and compromises with faculty members. Art students may have extremely mixed feelings about the values they are internalizing. At its worst, schooling consists of the old stealing from the young — stealing time, stealing money, and providing a curriculum that reinforces a self-serving institutional agenda.
In many ways, "toward a utopian arts complex" was about the return of the repressed, and coming to terms with the slimy underbelly of the American dream — the indigestible, toxic side of culture and some of its miseducational underpinnings. The exhibition was a part of a larger project called "Missing Time," in which Kelley presents the abusive aspect of his schooling as deriving from the Hans Hoffmann's pervasive educational influence. Hoffmann's aesthetics — his push-pull theories of color and composition, and his emphasis on form at the expense of content — had a powerful impact on teaching practices at American art schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Kelley lampoons Hoffmann's formalism, but at the same time, he shows its role in shaping his thought by returning to it in his current work, even if it is to discredit it.
The exhibition's references to formalism also brought back memories of the influence of Clement Greenberg's essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," and of Ad Reinhardt's relentless attempts to purge everything that was "not art" from his work. "toward a utopian arts complex" satirized the pedagogical orthodoxies they helped to create, as well as their intolerance of imagery that is not only popular and crass, but powerful and disturbing. The exhibition included a large architectural model based on Kelley's memories of all of the school buildings he attended; recreations of the types of paintings he did while in art school, which made some references to Hans Hoffmann's methods; examples of children's art with hypothetical analyses of symptoms of abuse by the artist; newspapers from the cities where Kelley attended school, with stories of abuse or restaurant reviews repeated in them; and other objects. The architectural model, the "utopian arts complex," was an idealized amalgam of all the sites of the artist's pedagogical abuse, with areas he'd forgotten being covered up. Paintings and objects, like "Untwisted Cross" and "Playroom Decor," included references to both formalism and forbidden adolescent approaches to imagery; and Entry Way (Genealogical Chart), Kelley's family tree, parodied the type of welcoming sign that one sees when driving into a small town in the United States, and alluded to the fascism and violence that are often hidden behind an upbeat, sentimental facade. Interestingly enough, by installing an architectural model of a false academic utopia alongside work that made references to formalism, adolescent imagery and children's art, Kelley's exhibition brought to mind two important threads of modernism: its attempt to create models of an ideal society through aesthetics, and its appreciation of the visceral power of the work of unschooled artists, finding them to be authentic and free from civilization's corrupting influences. Paradoxically, Kelley maintains some of the moralistic interests of modernism through his implicit criticism of its most cherished ideas — by pointing out the abuse lurking in utopias, and by showing the stereotypical aspects of unschooled imagery, while still reveling in some of the pleasures they offer.
At its best, "toward a utopian arts complex" was an elaborate, sardonic series of reflections on abuse that were recovered from the artist's memories, and by extension, from the American psyche as it is portrayed in the media, where reports of real sexual and physical violence and more suspect stories of ritual satanic abuse and alien abductions are constantly bubbling to the surface. Kelley's exhibition was also, in some ways, a response to the confessional aspects of American popular culture, in which celebrities speak out about their childhood traumas in endless appeals for sympathy, publicity, and public catharsis. Of course, it's a stretch to consider Kelley's art school experiences as a form of child abuse. Kelley is a successful product of the educational system — he must have gotten something positive out of going to art school. While some aspects of Kelley's exhibition strained credulity, it was entertaining and rewarding, and it did bring back memories of the dysfunctional aspects of the art school experiences that many of us endured and are still trying to sort out.