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Post #563 • June 22, 2005, 9:35 AM • 63 Comments

Robert Hughes reviewed the Richard Serra installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao and went gaga over it.

Let's come right out with it: on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century.

I've never heard Hughes effuse praise like this. Even more unusually, he agrees with Michael Kimmelman, who went gaga over the same works two weeks ago.

The installation is one of the great works of the past half-century, the culmination of a remarkable fruition in Mr. Serra's career. It rejuvenates and pushes abstraction to a fresh level. And it is deeply humane, not least because it counts on individual perception, individual discovery.

With this possibly unprecedented agreement and Peter Schjeldahl taking a shine to the work of Ralph Provisero, I got to thinking...

Neomodernism, anyone?




June 22, 2005, 5:10 PM

Yeh, take this.



June 22, 2005, 5:11 PM

It is "Public Art" personified. Some work just has all the expected ingredients. Kimmelman and Hughes are both staunch middlebrows, though Hughes certainly has the edge writingwise, as witness his characterizations of other kinds of art in this review. (These people are always way better when negative). It is fatuous to talk about the "greatest" without even bringing up Tony Caro. And it is high carelessness to overlook the painful fact that Serra's sculpture, if small, would be pathetically deficient sculpturally. Apart from the frightening monstrousness It's boring. Like Kelley and Johns and so many of our current art culture heros his virtue is to have evolved a "signature" style and stuck with it, unaffected by the changes inspiration always forces on art, for decades. It really is soulless stuff, just like the building that houses it.



June 22, 2005, 5:21 PM

Go George! Haven't seen that one since 1997. Nice.

Oldpro, I take issue with this:

Serra's sculpture, if small, would be pathetically deficient sculpturally.

I think sculpture is too sensitive to scale for this to be a fair criticism. I doubt your average Bernini would be nearly as moving in miniature. Scale is such an integral part of the operation that hypothesizing a change would be like hypothesizing a change in the color.

As for Johns, Schjeldahl just shellacked him, so he is not on board with the hero worship in this instance.



June 22, 2005, 5:25 PM

I think Hughes was spot on. Stunningly great sculptures.
I saw some similar Serras at Gagosian last year, they have the right stuff.



June 22, 2005, 5:34 PM

The Schjeldahl review is not a shellacking, it is respectful disappointment. His article is full of high praise for earlier work like those inert cross-hatch paintings and the dreadfully conceived and painted maps. When a pop critic like Schjeldahl is actually willing to give an artist like Johns an honest shellacking there will be real changes brewing.

Sculpture lives on form, relationship. Serra's sculpture lacks any kind of interesting form. It is probably impossible to induce in such size.

I can modify what I said to answer your criticism and still say the same thing: the sculpture is formally vacuous but that fact is disguised by the huge size.



June 22, 2005, 5:38 PM

Oh poo...

Size is a formal quality



June 22, 2005, 5:55 PM

Geez George. Of course if is a "formal quality". So is circularity and rusty color. So what?


Rene Barge

June 22, 2005, 6:20 PM

Good Morning,
There is an epiphany that can happen when almost limitless power is being pipelined directly through your own hands into your brain; this is the one that pulls together all the threads and becomes irresistibly addictive. This epiphany regularly comes with the slow rush of a big wave, a form like tsunami, whose emblem is the marks of the intervals felt etched into the form, and whose final registration of prodigious power only takes place when the marked form strikes the eye. This is further adventures in modern art. Nothing neo!
Off for more coffee.



June 22, 2005, 6:24 PM

Serra is a Minimalist. Minimalisim was one of the first movements to provide an alternative to the visual richness of Modernism. With his huge size Serra attempted to be heroic. He would up being large.

"PostModernist" would be a better tem than "NeoModernist". "Neo" implies a contiuation.



June 22, 2005, 6:26 PM

In #9:

He would up being large. = He wound up being large.


flatboy again

June 22, 2005, 6:28 PM

And "tem" = "term".


and again

June 22, 2005, 6:32 PM

"contiuation" = "continuation".

I'm going to quit fixing my typos. There are too many and it clutters the blog.



June 22, 2005, 6:34 PM

Keep on truckin', Rene. You are saying something there, if you could only somehow construct it better. Is it beer time yet? How is the work going?

Wouldnt Minimalism be considered Modernist, Flatboy?



June 22, 2005, 6:51 PM


To get past the inbred restraints of the modern, "modernist" won't work.




June 22, 2005, 6:54 PM

I quit correcting (most of) mine also, Flatboy. One tends to automatically correct them in reading according to the context anyway.

Reading what you write in the "preview" mode helps sometimes.



June 22, 2005, 7:34 PM

Going only by the photo in the Guardian review (thankfully and sensibly devoid of registration BS), I am inclined to agree with Oldpro. The photo looks distinctly unimpressive, even banal, like something one might see on a kitchen countertop blown up to gigantic size. I have always been wary and suspicious of large scale as a potential trick to compensate for lack of quality otherwise. Hughes does emphasize that the work needs to be experienced directly and relatively intimately, but I am still skeptical.



June 22, 2005, 7:56 PM

i would have to agree with the up close and personal experience of it. I know the hository and mission of the artist but also realize that what comes across is totally individual.

I loved the sensation of the possibility of one of these things tumbling over. That is powerful. i like the way it seems to distort perception if you are standing alonside it looking beyond it. i like the way it looks from afar and above so you can see the people winding through it and the new feeling of the previous to in a removed manner.



dont think so

i mean "he" can think so

and i would hope that as a critic, he would take a more responsible stance than to throw absolutes out at the public like that, and re-emphasize the "personal" observation.

hey, isn't it about that time for the postmodernist "death of art", or have we all forgotten/denied that argument?



June 22, 2005, 7:57 PM

OldPro: About Minimalism and Modernism ...

I read Mr. Greenberg recently where he said that Modernism was a purge of the unnecessary from art, the principle target of which was French Academicism. That seems correct as far as it goes and would certainly support including Minimalism in with Modernism. But Greenberg's discussion missed a major issue of Modernism - its infusion of richness, the positive side of why they eliminated the unnecessary, to make room for lively art, bursting-at-the-seams art. Does razzle-dazzle Bougeureau burst at the seams? No, not really. Does crude-ass Cezanne? Of course.

Richness, not elimination, is what binds the Abstract Expressionists into an easily recognized group. They were so lavish in their engagment with richness that none of them used a common method. The lack of a common method, the lack of a common "look", perplexes some. But I see it as a manifestation of utter richness achieved by any means that would work. That's why I said a while ago that I don't get it when people say the New York School was a group that did not seem like a movement.

So richness is the positive side of Greenberg's negative insight. If I have a good handle on it (and I think I do), then Minimalism is not to be included with Modernism because it went only for the negative, the purge. Their purge was, in general, too extreme, and led to an empty look that reminds me of Bouguereau. Not all of it is vacant. Tony Smith's Die, for instance, has a good spark to it. But Serra ... sorry. He is no Modernist.



June 22, 2005, 8:23 PM

You've got a PhD thesis cooking there, Flatboy. i will answer later. Gotta go somewhere at the moment.



June 22, 2005, 8:45 PM

oldpro: "It really is soulless stuff, just like the building that houses it."

Really? Have you visited the building or just seen pictures?

I have visited Bilbao's Guggenheim museum several times and true, the building always wins against the work that is inside...but to me, the building is not "soulless" is impressively majestic and beautiful to look at. It is the only thing that stands out from that gloomy gray city of Bilbao as you descend the Picos de Europa. It looks like a shining diamond and attracts you like a magnet from far, far away.



June 22, 2005, 9:06 PM

well, there's my problem, Luisa. i think diamonds are soulless too.



June 22, 2005, 9:08 PM

Flatboy, My appointment is delayed but I dont want to take on what you brought up just yet, until I have time.


J.T. Kirkland

June 22, 2005, 9:20 PM

You guys must be really skinny if you can take a set of Serra scultpures, shirnk them to whatever small size you are talking about, and still walk inside the gaps of the piece to reach the center. Maybe you could put one foot in the center at such a small size? I mean, at ginormous size the spaces to walk between aren't so expansive.

I thought similar things about pictures of the sculptures. I even thought similar things when I saw the set at Dia: Beacon from afar. But when I actually experienced the pieces by walking in and out, brushing by other viewers, losing my sense of location inside the bowels of the sculpture, well, then I was converted. These sculptures are incredible. Best ever? Well, I wouldn't go there.

How many people here have actually walked inside of one?



June 22, 2005, 9:33 PM

I doubt your average Bernini would be nearly as moving in miniature.

Next time you're up in Boston, you might want to test this hypothesis out. I think you'll find that small is beautiful.



June 22, 2005, 10:13 PM

It would seem this sort of work is more architecture than sculpture. The bottom line remains I have not seen or experienced it, but I suspect its effect may depend largely on manipulated spatial perception based more on scale than form per se, as the form itself strikes me as banal.

For me, even the suspicion of something somehow akin to the IMAX "experience", or funhouse distorting mirrors, or simply huge steel plates impressive in their own right due to their intrinsic nature, makes me stop way short of the kind of praise heaped on this work by Hughes and others.



June 22, 2005, 10:24 PM

JT, I've walked inside of them and I agree, spectacular.

The physical experience is a function of scale and to the viewers relationship to the sculptures space and its boundaries. I would find it hard dismiss the work by saying "it lacks any kind of interesting form" after just looking at a maquette of photograph. What you think you "know" of this "interesting" form from a photograph is not the same experience you have when physically surrounded by steel. The knowledge and understanding of "the shape" becomes overwhelmed by the space local to the viewers body and the echo.



June 22, 2005, 11:02 PM

If this is a matter of "special effects" such as might be found, say, in some Disneyworld attraction, however more austere, I am, again, skeptical (and certainly not inclined to genuflect).



June 22, 2005, 11:12 PM

I don't think the term "special effects" is fair. I assume you are referring to the overwhelming scale of Serra's sculptures. Suppose I was a book illustrator accustomed to working in an area less than a meter square, could I dismiss Rubens (or some other big brown painter) as "special effects"? What would it mean. While I can accept someone might not care for the work, saying "it's to big to be good" seems like a poor argument.

PS, there is a career's worth of field paintings on all those CorTen surfaces.



June 22, 2005, 11:38 PM

George, it's not a question of it being too big to be good, but rather that it may be perceived as better than it is because of its scale (due, in fact, to a kind of special effects) and that Serra may be getting credit he does not deserve. As I've said on this thread and in prior occasions concerning other work by other people, I am always wary of bigness in art, because although it can be used legitimately, it can also be used to mask, compensate for, or distract from various deficiencies.



June 22, 2005, 11:47 PM

Just for the record, I have "walked around", in and around, Serra sculptures, and of course the experience is "different". How could not be? And it is a different kind of experience and sometimes even impressive, in a theatrical way. I just fail to find it interesting as art. I go along pretty much with the several comments Jack made above.

JL thanks for the Bernini items. I love Bernini, whatever size he chooses to come in. The little ones are certainly full of life.

Flatboy: Whether Minimaism is part of Modernism is a semantic question. It can only be answered by accepting a precise definition of Modernism. Certainly one of the constituents of Modernism was the gradual shedding of conventions not essential to the form. (I don't think Greenberg would use the word "purge", but he might have).

However this does not preclude enriching the form, particularly with characteristics which are useful for or peculiar to the form. In fact this could be said to be precisely what Moderism provided for. Nor does it preclude taking the reductionist idea to extremes, even when the resulting art is cold and no good, as much of it was - Modernist art does not have to be good art, after all. Neither tendency inherently criticises Greenberg's observation, which, by the way, was not a "negative insight", but an insight about a negating process..

The "richness" you speak or was not evident across the board, if you consider Newman, but then I find Newman's paintings "rich" in another way (which I won't get into) so i can go along with that. However I think this richness and especially the variety - unique, at the time, in a major art movement - had more to do with the new emphasis on innovation coupled with the weakening of assumptions about what painting "could be" than anything else.

All of this could be exapanded into a most interesting discussion, or, as i said, a PhD dissertation, but as far as I know no one is doing it.



June 23, 2005, 1:10 AM

OldPro wrote: "...had more to do with the new emphasis on innovation coupled with the weakening of assumptions about what painting 'could be' than anything else".

I'd change "weakening of assumptions" to "strengthening of assumptions". As far as innovatoin goes, the AE folks never did look that innovative. Abstraction had been around for decades. So had weird methods of applying paint. But it's true that Greenberg saw Modernism as deeply connected to an "innovation" / "rennovation" process, and he applied the term to AE. He seemed fixed on the fact people of the time were shocked by it. There is no shock now. Most of the pictures are very pretty. That's wonderful as far as I am concerned, but not shocking.

True, Modernist art is not all good. But Greenberg appears to associate the shift (back) to essentials to have been good for art in general. I'd agree. Some were better at it than others, as always.

Newman might have been a bridge between AE and Minimalism. There is no precise definition of Modernism that can't be successfully attacked, so I won't try. I'm confident nonetheless that most Minimalists don't belong under the Modernism umbrella.



June 23, 2005, 1:36 AM

Weakening or strengthening, you can say the same thing both ways.

You are making the case for and against "shocking", but it is a side issue. "shock" may be too strong, anyway. They did indeed look very "innovative" at the time. You had to have been there, really. You can't sense iit at all from today, when it has been so assimilated. AE was a public joke 50/60 years ago. People were very indignant about Pollock. Truman said abstract art was "scrambled eggs". People made fun of it, drew cartoons about it and were universally derisive. And so forth.

In any event "shocking" had nothing to do directly with innovation, and innovation had nothing to do with the fact that abstraction as such had been around for a while. These things are nominally interrelated but you can't just jam them together with no explanation or qualification.

Greenberg may have felt that the "shift back to essentials" was a good thing, but he never said so, and his personal bias was for the old masters, which was where he went first whenever he visited any mueum for the first time.



June 23, 2005, 2:53 AM

I was making the case against shocking. The "for" statements were paraphrasing Greenberg, who goes on and on about shock in a 1983 essay called Beginnings of Modernism. (I got a new book, paid full price for it too, took a long time for Amazon to deliver it but it was worth it). He says: "only with moderism did artistic innovation begin to innovate so disruptively to taste, with such shock, with such disorienting effect." Also described it as a innovation compelled "disturbingly, shockingly, provacatively" to innovate (sounds like something you could read in this month's art mags). Etcetera. Seems like he assumed this stuff is/was shocking and every reader knew it. Then he goes on to say the question of why this was so had received "hardly any real attention" - a strange statement that seems to fly in face of the facts. By 1983 the shock of the new was Time and Newsweek fodder. But he, like OldPro, lived through it. I didn't. I'm not a true primitive, but I don't bring all that baggage when I look at AE. It is interesting baggage, nonetheless. The prez of the US weighed in, eh? That must have been exciting.

As far as modernism and quality, Greenberg said modernsim "meant at bottom the means to better art". That of course does not say the means always found its end. But it is clear he championed the modernist effort, even if he, like you say, headed for the old masters first in his art viewing.

His most interesting point is that modernism was about the devolution of past art, not a revolution against it, a taking apart of it. I wonder if "deconstruction" would not be just as good a word. But he was no fan of postmodernism. He made that clear in 1980.



June 23, 2005, 3:08 AM

He always maintained, and I saw no evidence to doubt it, that all he did was to see what was best and they try to write clearly about it. In that respect he was 'for" modernism in its various forms, almost against his will, it seemed.

I don't know about the part where you say that he said something (the shock?) had received so little attention - did you check out the relative dates?

As for "devolution" he contended that so-called "revolutionary" art was always at heart conservative, in the sense of conserving value in art against corruption and deterioration, and was accomplished through innovation and looked "shocking" - or whatever - because the art audience had grown accustomed to inferior art.

Yes indeed, it is familiar. There is a description of a 1944 Whitney Annual in those writings somewhere which could be brought forward 60 years with almost no alteration.



June 23, 2005, 4:44 AM

I was quoting directly in the "hardly any attention" to shock comment. He said it in 1983. Clearly, he associated modernism, innovation, and shock as deeply interconnected. Perhaps he was arguing that "devolution" not revolution was the way to analyze their relationship, and that hardly any attention had been directed to that approach.



June 23, 2005, 4:53 AM

Op: However I think this richness and especially the variety ... had more to do with the new emphasis on innovation coupled with the weakening of assumptions about what painting "could be" than anything else.

So ok, how is this any different then than now?



June 23, 2005, 6:16 AM

Flatboy, the quote you gave was "only with modernism did artistic innovation begin to innovate so disruptively to taste, with such shock, with such disorienting effect."
That sounds like something he would say, though i am not familiar with the text.

George, the emphasis on innovation, which became explicit aound the late 19th C.. led naturally to a variety of methods of art-making, many tracks going in different directions. Post-war art has taken it to the point where virtually anything can be "art", as for example our jumper. All one has to do is call it art.

Oddly enough this unbridled freedom seems to have led in turn to diminished innovation, that is, where before new ways were found to use the same materials, now everyone does the same thing with different materials. hence all the "exploration of issues" type thing. I know this demands a lot more explication - it's another thesis topic for someone - but it may be that true innovation can only take place in a structured environment.



June 23, 2005, 7:48 AM

Painting. Frequently, as I take my coffee in the morning, I'll go to the Hungarian website and use the search function. I set it up to give back "paintings" from some particular period like "1651-1700". I usually edit the URL to give me 50 paintings at time

Then I just look (at all 600 or so). What is interesting is the overall relationship between the various artists and works in any given period of time. The database stops in the 1800's so the process is disconnected from "the modern" although I still think this Giovanni de Paolo from 1445 is as "modern" as can be (see it at the Met)

Aside from technical developments in the medium, what I see, is less an evolution than a constant reexamination of different aspects of the terrain. The differences in how some territory is newly realized seems to depend on the sensibility of the artist and the demands of the marketplace.

So where is the problem?
Post-war art has taken it to the point where virtually anything can be "art" Oh boy, "Houston we have a problem" While we may like to romantically believe that "anything can be art", few artist have the power to make this true. It is no wonder that this unbridled freedom seems to have led in turn to diminished innovation Innovation, the shock of the new, the controversial are all just characteristics of the process. What needs to be examined is the total set of characteristics, all the modifiers, all the characteristics, not just the ones from the last 50 years.

Curiously, this is what appears to be happening. Younger painters are looking back with a fresh, untutored, eye. This is exactly what I would expect at the boundary of the post historical, at the end of postmodernism. Boundary conditions are brutal, behind you lies the orders of past history and in front of you is the apparent chaos of the new history. Reviving something neglected can appear innovative or old hat, what causes this? What blinders do we wear? What historically induced biases do we bring to the table when we look anew?

How about this as landscape?

Watch out for Rene Barge.



June 23, 2005, 9:27 AM

Boundary conditions.

Painting at the edge. Jackson Pollock.
Paint, stick, body, defining a mark at the edge of control.
There is no extension, only a move sideways, or assimilation.
Rejoice, it is a miracle.



June 23, 2005, 10:01 AM

Clarity of thought.



June 23, 2005, 10:03 AM

Definine a mark, at the edge of control.



June 23, 2005, 10:05 AM

Tell me, about your marks, edge of control.


George (level III)

June 23, 2005, 10:11 AM

Every mark has an edge of control.
Its thought, reference and avoidance, place
Touchdown, and move to a decision
Now thought and place, memory



June 23, 2005, 10:46 AM

Babes in toyland.

mmmmmmm. babes anywhere.

Loretta, he's a hick.



Babes in Toyland.



June 23, 2005, 3:49 PM

George, I'm sort of confused - we are entering "post history", right? But it is really "new history"? "Post" would mean to leave history behind, but "new" means merely to switch from one history to another. And you advocate examining the "total" thing, not just the past 50 years, yet then you rant a against "historically induced biases" that presumably would be an effect of looking at all of history. Can you explain, or was this just a way to drum up some drama?

I'm not so sure about your blinders/bias stuff, in any event. I'm not biased enough to fret about, honest. I see pretty clearly. I just don't like what I see very often. It's not my biases that cause that, it is what I'm looking at.



June 23, 2005, 4:31 PM

Flatboy, you say "It's not my biases that cause that, it is what I'm looking at".

Absolutely. It is necessary to objectify value in art and at the same time be willing to question the process.



June 23, 2005, 8:40 PM

I think post historical was Dantos term.

My basic view is simple, history is just a record over time.

In my view, as a painter, a significant moment was the development of photography. Photography accelerated the democratization of the image making process. No longer were images the creations of a few skilled practitioners. Prior to this, painting essentially followed a linear historical development which was to some extent directed by patronage. The media explosion changed the way funding of images occurred. In one pocket, we have funding for something akin to advertising, in the other we have what's left for art.

Coincidentally, around the turn of the last century we began to see a rise in the importance of "novelty" Why was this? I suspect it represented a bifurcation away from directed images, advertising, in an attempt to regain a place of focus in the culture. By the middle of the 20 th century we were awash in images, moving and still. This period appears to be the hypothetical boundary between the "old history" and the new.

Two hundred years ago, a painter had a few museums, local printed matter and whatever he could directly observe. As image making proliferated, the artist was given a new range of subjects to consider. In spite of its Dada roots, Pop Art seemed inevitable as the artist confronts his own time. Coincidentally, the notion that "anything can be art" finds its roots in this period of expanded images as more connections and interrelationships are made apparent. There was no historical precedent for such a rapid explosion in available imagery and new media. Prior historical influences were lost in the onslaught as artists made up their own rules to deal with the new media.

The "old history" was pre-twentieth century.
The twentieth century was the confrontation with mass media and the image explosion. As thinkers attempted to organize this event they came up with problematic terms like "post historical" to account for the change in the way the world was viewed. What I am suggesting is that this change is just a boundary condition, before there was no mass media, after there was. That's over simplified, of course, but it is essentially the problem.

What I think is occurring, is that the culture is aware it has crossed the boundary and now is just dealing with it. To this end, the internet has come to the rescue. At this moment in time, a painter has access to an unbelievable amount of visual information from numerous sources. In the last ten years digital imaging has come to the forefront as a new source. It is possible to establish an overview and reconnect to the historical sources.

Reviving something neglected can appear innovative or old hat, what causes this? What blinders do we wear? What historically induced biases do we bring to the table when we look anew?
Here I was not being pejorative but suggesting that we have the tools to reexamine the neglected without copying it. In the context of this topic "neomodernism" I feel that we need to stand back and see how modernism looks at a distance. This is what I mean by "blinders", to look back without ones personal baggage. I suspect this is easier for a young artist.

PS, I have no idea what Babes in Toyland was about.


Bill Wilson

June 24, 2005, 5:08 AM

George: I still think this Giovanni de Paolo from 1445 is as "modern" as can be (see it at the Met)

This painting was painted in order to conduce to salvation, as an object of meditation that a viewer could analyse for spiritual meanings and then offer the prayer to be a better person by obeying the moral imperatives implied by the painting. The painting was to be used in thought to correct feelings; visual delectations were the honey on the rim of the cup of medicine. The image of circles within circles, and of Adam and Eve, are so far from being drawn from verifiable experience, that they are imposed on experience. The dualism of male and female, of Adam and Eve, is not an induction from the evidence, which is an array of overlapping sexual possibilities in actual bodies, and of gender possibilities in styles of using bodies. The abstraction into pair opposites imposes an abstract a priori logic with no foundation in existence, yet a currency in the argument that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. In this painting, the irrregular and apparently lawless "earth" is enclosed within spheres. A sphere is a geometric shape with a uniform curvature. To belong to a sphere, one must conform to the uniformities of the sphere. A sphere has no margins, so that marginal people, including some artists, find no place on the governing social/political sphere, and must "...light out for the territory." Much in Modernism has been anti-idealist, that is, against abstract universal ideal forms that are used to criticize actualities, not to encourage them to achieve their authenticity. Much Post-modernism in itself has long ago dissented from the simplistic dualism of male and female, a model for the other dualisms like black and white, but it has no foundation from which to forbid or destroy them. Methods of thought construct objects of thought, so that the same destructive methods like imposed dualities will continue to construct the same destructive processes and products. Look: Adam and Eve are white, tall, ambulatory, and even rather slim; Adam as the superior confronts the angel. The 7 of the 7 trees is a mystical number, participating in the ideal reality of mathematics. A number, in eternity, can act at a distance, from a transcendental plane onto an immanent plane. That thinking is quite active, as in Ronald Reagan changing his address from 666 to a less satanic number, and a child's social security number being altered lest it participate in the diabolic. Yet Cezanne, who hugged trees to say Good-night, seems not to have counted them. The architect Daniel Libeskind has used the powers of 12 and 18 in his activities, yet they are surely not in se architectural ideas (not often since the Renaissance). On another note, these trees are naturalistic, that is, highly probable, in the sense that peasants pulled down the lower limbs for firewood, so that in medieval painted forests, trees that look allegorical represent the actual trees, yet they are still allegorical, because European paintings could not but be religious, and every tree was an image conveying an idea about the Ideal Tree. Each tree was capable of participating in the One Tree, that is, the Tree in the Garden of Eden that was identical with the Cross of the Crucifixion. Certainly some people still hold faith the way medieval painters held faith; and brilliant theologians are arguing that there has been little "realistic" painting since the medieval period,since the reality is that the visible world is a gift from God. Paining would do well to reciprocate the gift with full awareness of the giver (Phillip Blond). On a lower plane, a surviving medieval painting is a gift from within history. Any depletes of its power as an object of transcendental faith seems a poor exchange, and fails to appreciate the relations between aesthetic illusions and transcendental entitles like angels. Well, whatever Modernism is, one dominant Modernism opposes transcendental idealisms, and therefore opposes both allegory and blunt dualities. Nowadays, when Post-modernism must allow religious transcendentalisms, religious paintings can be rescued from the formalism that depleted them, and restored as robust acts of faith that still have implications for illusion and anti-illusion.



June 24, 2005, 6:04 AM

Thanks for that long explanation George. I appreciate the effort you put into it. Can't say I completely understand it, or even understand it well. But you touch on the many subjects that seem to be on the minds of a lot of cultural types and wrap them up into a nice long thing.

My problem is I think things are basically simple, as far as art goes. The only agent that fully enters into the causality chain for art is art itself. Art is what affects most of the art we do, not current events. That is not a very widely held view, I know, but I hold it nonetheless. The war on terror has more to do with what happens if I walk into an airport to fly somewhere, than it does when I walk into my studio to paint.

I am puzzled too by the importance you as a painter ascribe to photography. Painting seems to be the primary force behind painting. Photography behind photography and so on.

I'll read what you wrote again. Maybe some of it will sink in.



June 24, 2005, 6:28 AM

Or better yet, Flatboy, just walk into your studio and forget it.

Art is very hard to do well, but in the end, as you say, it is very simple.



June 24, 2005, 2:43 PM

Flatboy, Op sez just walk into your studio and forget it
Reasonably good advice, for the most part that's what I do. I think about this stuff because it interests me, not to drive the work from a theoretical point of view.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin (1936) is on the reading list of any university art history department. (The link is an online version of the book, also available here)

The only agent that fully enters into the causality chain for art is art itself.
I assume you're speaking about the practice, the making, the painting (v). In this case I would question the assumption. Art and Life. Our lives, our time, our cultural environment all shape the perceptions we bring to the studio. All this new stuff, delivered up by photography and it's descendants, has to influence what we do. We cannot, nor should we, shut it out, for it is our age. To me the importance of photography is not about its process or object, it is about how it has made possible, the proliferation of images in contemporary society.



June 24, 2005, 2:58 PM

Bill, You misunderstood me, by "modern" I meant contemporary, in the present time and not modern in an art historical context.

I want the viewer to look at Giovanni de Paolo's painting with fresh eyes and to leave all that historical baggage aside.

You need an editor, or at least some carriage returns.



June 24, 2005, 3:14 PM

George, I've read your statement a couple more times. It is a coherent way to conjoin a lot of topics that a lot of folks talk a lot about. Like what Bill Wilson said on another page, it goes over in art school and that is what it means to me and that is how I will eventually use it. Harold Rosenberg wrote about the "action painters" that they "broke down every distinction between art and life". If you haven't read that essay (American Action Painters), I think you would find it affirming of what you say about art and life. Myself, he said the opposite of how I interact with art. Art and life are so separated they are not even "enemies". Each simply goes its own way. Of course I respect the fact one must be alive to paint, one must eat, one must deal with the government, and so on. Specifically, I must deal with life in the art department which, curiously, doesn't have a lot to do with making art either.

Benjamin's essay has a few good sentences, but as a whole it makes the typical Papal Encyclical seem modest. Too many sweeping general "truths" for me from which he deduces all sorts of weird stuff, but in any case, his title makes the point - that photography has had an impact on art - better than the essay. Photo might have had an influence in the late 1800s. But the event is now over, and if painting changed its path in some way or another as a result, each goes its own way now.

Myself, I think photography secretly looks up to drawing, and that continues, not because it has to, but because photographers keep trying to "compose".

And OldPro, yes, the studio is a good place to forget art theory, cultural history, politics, and everything else that is not visual. But grad students should not ever admit they do that.



June 24, 2005, 3:45 PM

Flatboy, That piece by Walter Benjamin was written in 1936 and has been the source of a number of debates. He was prescient in anticipating the changes but missed on the details as artists just absorbed "mechanical reproduction" into their bag of tricks. BTW, I read Harold Rosenberg, Walter Benjamin and ... but 25 years ago.

Photo might have had an influence in the late 1800s. But the event is now over, and if painting changed its path in some way or another as a result, each goes its own way now. and the following sentence lead me to believe you are viewing "photography" in an "us vs them" context influenced by recent events.

To the contrary, my comments on photography are not about it's viability as an artistic medium but as a cultural and social phenomena. There is no way that the event is now over, not by a long shot. This is a pandoras box situation that cannot be reversed. Everything we do is influenced by modern media (the spawn of photography) including this discussion on the internet.

It means that as painters we have have access to a much greater range of visual source material and cultural influences. It's positivly liberating



June 24, 2005, 4:07 PM

George: It's not "us versus them" because "I are one sorta" as in I have done some photography and remain interested in doing more.

The "event" I thought I was talking about was the influence of photography on painting, not social or cultural stuff. Photo is still around, of course, but, like the telephone, it is part of the landscape, not an active agent, if we're talking about painting's world. The telephone gives us acces to stuff, right? Does that make it an agent? I don't think so.



June 24, 2005, 4:29 PM


OK, I see what you meant and certainly painting had an influence of photography. What do you mean by "agent"?



June 24, 2005, 4:46 PM

This is kind of a stupid thing to do Flats, but you are saying some good stuff, and I chose to extract the following just in case any of our readers missed them:

"Benjamin's essay has a few good sentences, but as a whole it makes the typical Papal Encyclical seem modest. Too many sweeping general "truths" for me ..."

"Myself, I think photography secretly looks up to drawing, and that continues, not because it has to, but because photographers keep trying to "compose"."

" the studio is a good place to forget art theory, cultural history, politics, and everything else that is not visual. But grad students should not ever admit they do that."

Benjamin is a blowhard equalled only by Danto. These people do their best to wring art's neck like a chicken's. And expand on that "trying to compose" statement. it is too open-ended and potentially fruitful to leave along. And, finally, I will boast here: we encourage our grads to do just that. But I know it is rare.



June 24, 2005, 5:32 PM

It may be stupid, OldPro, but it sure is flattering that the king of fluency would find something I said worth highlighting. (You are the most fluent art talker I've run across, by the way.)

Recently I was looking at some incredible 30x40 drawings a friend of mine makes with a single very sharp F graphite pencil. He gets convincing darks with that damned pencil, which amazes me because they are not that dark, they are dense without being dark, which is more than enough to get the job done. (He hates charcoal, hates B pencils, and doesn't seem to need Hs to control the lights, either.)

Anyway, he draws figures from life but uses photos of the models for a lot of the drawing because he dan't afford to pay a model to spend the hours and hours it takes to complete one of these things. He showed me one drawing where the head was a disaster. He had taken a photo of the model's face with an insty camera, with flash directly in her face, creating a flat semi-ghost lit situation. He was attempting to finish the head based on that snapshot.

The snapshot, like much photography, was perfectly convincing as a fact that had been recorded by a camera. Yet, were he to project that photo on the paper and draw it perfectly, as only he and a few others could, it would never work as a drawing because its light and dark composition would not work for drawing. Top lit could work, ghost lit could work, but the brutal head on collision of light straight into her face could not.

So this is a case of drawing trying to imitate a photo, to the detriment of the drawing. (The photo, by the way, was remarkable. It was a color print, but the light and dark of it was what gave it its character, of which it had plenty.) This illustrates the converse of what I was saying, but at the same time explains that there is a great distance between drawing and photography.

So, and again conversely, when photographers emulate the light and dark patterns that work in drawing, they sink their medium into second class status. The greatest photographers did this (Adams, Weston). And the avant-garde rebel-with-a-cause-punk photogs do it too. It simply infects just about everything that I have seen. It is as if they all want a shortcut into drawing they way my friend can draw, who makes about five of his things a year.

Photographers could exploit the sheer factual aspect of photography more than they do, instead of taking on issues with their plastic Holgas. When they pull those fuzzy somewhat distorted issue-in-your-face Holga prints off the machines, inevitably the lights and darks compose like drawings arrange them. After seing so many that look like this, I must suppose that is what they want.



June 24, 2005, 6:23 PM

Well, thanks for your compliment, and I will say something else, which you may or may not take as one, and that is that Clem Greenberg had a very similar view of photography. I don't know if he ever wrote about it, but I talked about it with him several times. He felt that photography was at its best when it was purely realistic and narrative, "catching a moment", and was at it's worst when it tried to imitate painting. He had little use for darkroom effects like Man Ray's or dramatic scenes like Adams. I believe he gave a talk saying these things at the Met once, on photography, and, as usual, was surprised by the levels of hostility it engendered.



June 25, 2005, 8:48 PM

Yes OldPro the fact that Greenberg said things similar to my take on photography is positive for me. I don't find many who agree with me and I appreciate his company; yours too, I assume?

Usually I hear that I miss the point that the visual aspect is merely a means for taking on the issue, or that I won't allow photography to go beyond the visual, or something like that.

The new Greenberg book I bought does not contain all those weekly triple-headed reviews, which I guess he must have quit doing at some point. I don't blame him at all. It is hard to understand why anyone would do reviews. They are thankless and it is so easy to get caught with your pants down.


gigi gabrielle

June 25, 2005, 11:49 PM


I visited the landscape that you mentioned (Thursday;, June 23rd;, 12:48).
Who was the painter? Contemporary or 17th Century Hungarian?
Thanks for the hypertext---amazing landscape.



June 26, 2005, 12:08 AM

gigi, The painting was by Jules Olitski (Moses Path - Gold & Silver, 2001)
The image source was the Charles Nodrum Gallery in Melbourn, Australia. My tagging as a landscape was just based on it's appearance.

The "Hungarian Website" was Franklins moniker for this site in a comment awhile back, seemed apt. It's is a good web source for art images (1100-1850) which is actually hosted in Hungary (the .hu) by a couple of ex-scientists.



June 26, 2005, 12:23 AM

Flatboy, anyone who seriously goes on about "the issue" or "the vlsual" is just playing some other game where art is the ball that gets batted around, nothing more. They don't get it and they don't want to get it.

I didn't entirely agree with Clem about photography but I would have to qualify that by saying that I don't have the same kind of conviction about photography as I have about painting. I don't care much for the darkroom stuff either, and I always thought Adams's stuff was cold and theatrical, but when i was a kid artist I took a lof of photographs of grafitti and storefronts and sidewalks and the like. Some of them were pretty good too, I think; several were shown at a "photographs by artists" show ath the LA County museum in the 70s. (You could never get away with that title now, obviously).They were definitely in the "light and shade on an inanimate object" camp, and I think Clem might not have cared for them. I never bothered to show them to him because there was no reason to.

I look at photography a lot and have advised photograpy grad students. I find this fairly easy to do by invoking basic design & content judgements, so there is certainly a 2D alliance going on. But photography seems to set up a different set of expectations; a "good" photograph seems to speak to a different "entertainment center" in me, something more to do with mood and drama and "meaning" than a painting does. (Bad photos, however, are pretty obvious). I have never been able to articulate it or have full confidence in it.



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