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Art is long, the science is dismal

Post #1259 • November 24, 2008, 10:40 PM • 68 Comments

So. The stuff has arrived from California and is perhaps one-third unpacked. The cars are here. The RV is in the shop for an 18-inch crack in the windsheild and a cauterized awning. (We had an overly exciting trip down Jamaica Way last month - Vehicle 0, Tree 1.) We lit our first fire in the fireplace, duly setting off the smoke detector. The second fire was a far more modest affair, and made for a lovely evening. We are not far from the train tracks, but I have already stopped noticing the train. Necee, who missed her opportunity to toss a few Nyah Nyahs in the direction of Brooklyn, New Jersey, and elsewhere on the occasion of our settling in Boston, came over for breakfast yesterday as our honored first houseguest. The cats have staked out their favorite windows. As soon as I find my gallon bucket of white paint, put a palette together, and unpack the scanner, the studio is ready to go.

Now it's time to find some income. I'm thinking about going into finance.

I have long thought that people with talent for investment were hypernumerate and fascinated with the minutiae of corporate workings. It's just as well - anyone with a flair for numbers would not go into art-making as a profession. They'd do the math and conclude, Forget it. I have modest powers of numeracy but my creative impulses tend to roll over them. I assume the converse in the case of the financially inclined.

It turns out that a handful of commonsensical guidelines, comprehensible to the artist, would have hedged pretty well against current events. Don't spend money you don't have. Make loans assuming that the borrower will disappear, and enjoy the pleasant surprise of repayment if it comes to pass. Regard debt as a scourge; suffer it only for your house or your education, and put an end to it as expeditiously as you can. Don't get into deals you don't understand. Don't assume that the good times will last forever.

Too, I notice that the financial news keeps proving the libertarians correct. Ron Paul, who now looks as prophetic as Isaiah, was trying to shut down Fannie and Freddie back in 2003 for fear of dire consequences, every one of which came to pass. Videos are making the rounds featuring Peter Schiff, who served as economic advisor to the Paul campaign, cannily calling the meltdown in 2006 as Fox News talking heads impugn his sanity. The fundamentals of libertarian economics are not too hard to understand.

Schiff's main point these days is that we've gotten ourselves into trouble by not producing or saving enough. He means it literally, but as an artist I see some cogent figurative advice there. I've doubted before in this space that the field of art criticism supports three dozen full-time practitioners. Thus it ever was, but the value of commentary in general is deflating, all the more so in the field of art, where the standards and general level of interest are so low. Meanwhile, I have a backlog of art ideas ready to go, and, as it happens, here in the new house I have the biggest studio space I've ever had. It's time to get productive. could get a little studio-journal-y over the next little while, as I put more weight behind studio practice. Hope you're okay with that.




November 25, 2008, 11:44 AM

You seesm to have the rare faculties of fact recognition and common sense, which is all you need in the financial business.
Do it! It's more interesting than you think.

I'm sure George could give you a primer.


big puppy

November 25, 2008, 12:34 PM

Go for it, just like Koons!



November 25, 2008, 12:58 PM

I think Franklin made an argument for doing more work in the studio and less as an art critic. If so, I agree.

As little money as non-establishment artists make, they make more than non-establishement art critics. Interestingly, the non-establishment artist has a much greater chance of making a difference to art itself than even an establishment critic (of which there are very few, as Franklin points out). A non-establishment critic has virtually zero chance of making a difference.

Criticism has mattered little for most of the history of art. Only recently has it made any difference at all, and when it mattered most was in the 40s and 50s, when art people did not think it mattered that much. When the art world finally became convinced it WAS important (60s), it began to matter less and less. Since the 70s it has been dealers who set the standards and provide the filters that weed out the chosen few from the mass of "wanna be famous" artists, even though a great dealer cannot a great artist make. "Critics" who want to succeed have since then been required to write about art that has been selected by the most well capitalized dealers. Since "the most important" critics are followers not leaders, they live towards the bottom of that particular feeding chain. Granted, the "scraps" they feed upon are quite large, compared to what "Joe the artist" and "Joe the critic" get. Nonetheless, these 36 critics may appear to feed at the same table, but they are well coddled dogs that eat only what the masters choose to let them have.

So art writing now follows art dealing. Real art, art that is independent of the system of dealer created fliters and expectations, it continues in pockets here and there, kept alive like the monks kept classic thought alive in various isolated cloisters during the dark ages. It remains iffy, though, how much of today's real art will ever surface.

In the most optimistic case, art worth looking at is in a holding pattern rather than an expanding one, a matter of staying back from the edge of the abyss rather than soaring above it. Something is wrong when an older generation of artists leads in making things worth looking at. The younger folk are obsessed with doing things to talk about, without realizing that talking about art peaked 50 years ago.

So I ask: Why do so many wait for a messiah to provide the magic words that will propel them and the art they like into the limelight? Magic writing is dead.

What is needed is magic art and a credible audience that loves it. Together such an enterprise might soar above the resistance, which has become massively formidable.

Meantime, all we can do is keep on keeping on. It may take a very long time.



November 25, 2008, 1:08 PM

I would like to add that the preacher who advocated having sex every day was onto something that could make the long wait for magic art quite enjoyable.



November 25, 2008, 3:36 PM

The only critic that's really critical, so to speak, and the one that can definitely make a difference, is the critic everyone engaged with art should be. If that critic was on the job, as opposed to out to lunch, the situation would be very different, quite probably radically so.



November 25, 2008, 6:19 PM

If I had my choice between a great dealer and a great critic liking my work, I'd choose a great dealer. (Besides, there are no more great critics.)



November 25, 2008, 10:19 PM

John makes a lot of astute points in #3. Getting written about positively is always a shot in the arm. But art is one of the pleasures, and I view art criticism as an ancillary pleasure of art. I don't think it's supposed to do anything per se except prolong and deepen the experience of looking at art.



November 26, 2008, 12:15 AM

A good critic is one who knows the difference between good and not so good art and can effectively call attention to it.



November 26, 2008, 2:58 AM

Opie, it almost sounds like you think goodness is an objective property that inheres in certain objects.



November 26, 2008, 8:28 AM

Well, John, this could start a converstion, couldn't it?

Yes, "goodness" (the quotes are there to reflect the presumption that we mean the same thing by goodness) does inhere in, or is carried by, certain objects under particular conditions



November 26, 2008, 10:33 AM

Yes opie, it could start a conversation. I rememeber that you once seemed to be on the other side of the "objectivity" question, but have not looked it up. Of course it is "seeming" and "remembering", each fuzzy in its own way - the former intrinsically, the latter because it's me doing the remembering.

"Goodness" is not something I can define, though I know it when I experience it. I doubt there is much to quibble about there either.

But of course there are others who view it differently, goodness is purely a matter of opinion. If goodness is not carried by certain objects, then there is no basis for knowing the difference between those that carry an abundance of it, and those that don't. In such a view of the universe, art criticism can't be anything more than hap hazard attempts at manipulation of art opinion.

The mythical alien might say that indeed, art criticism appears to be exactly that: the hap hazard manipulation of art opinion. Yet (assuming the alien is logical, and why not?) this could be: 1), the effect of many art critics being unable to see in the first place, or 2), the effect of goodness not really inhering in any of the objects we call art.

So how do we address the alien's conclusion? Experience is the only way out, as it is for many vexing questions. Vexing, at least, when they are approached with sheer intellect.

About this "good critic": I think there are a few who know the difference between good and not so good, but the "effective call [of] attention to it" seems to require more than just making intrinsic sense, it also includes persuading an audience. The audience for critics who can see the difference is mighty small. Why do you think that is? As Kant put it, once you see something as either good or bad, you see it for all mankind, and have difficulty understanding how anyone else does not see it your way. These good critics face a wall of frustration.

Greenberg was the last great critic that I can name, and though he persuaded many and had a significant audience, he finally quit the Nation, apparently in good part because of his own wall of frustration, and rapidly decreased his public presence thereafter. He had had "... a belly-full of reviewing" he said, with reference to both reviewing art and books. Adding that art criticism "is about the most ungrateful form of 'elevated' writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging ...". And ending his statement with "I'm not sure the challenge is worth it". (Autobiographical Statement, 1955)

Interestingly, painting "more and more seriously" played a positive role in resolving his frustration with criticism. Does that ring anyone's bell besides mine?



November 26, 2008, 10:35 AM

OMG, it looks like Opie did not close his last italic markup.


Your first customer

November 26, 2008, 10:36 AM

What couldn't you fix Franklin, huh? If only the world had listened to the artists, we wouldn't find ourselves on the brink of economic collapse. Thank goodness that one of them has the both the sense and ethical responsibility to rescue us! By finance you likely mean putting on a Burger King uniform of a slightly different cut, doing what you're told, and then continuing to inflate your sense of self-worth and achievement. Drive-by that this is, I'd like a milkshake with that, please and thank-you!



November 26, 2008, 11:16 AM

Well, I can start by fixing that closing i-tag. And I did! Next, the derivatives market.

More in reply to John's comment after a short errand.



November 26, 2008, 12:13 PM

If I did something wrong I'm sorry - I wasn't aware of anything.



November 26, 2008, 12:43 PM

John - In the last few years I have turned more and more to the opinion that it is legitimate and instructive to maintain that there is such a thing as great art, good art etc etc. and that it is not a "matter of opinion". Kant is right; when we say art is good we mean it is good for everyone. Disagreement does not mean that goodness is relative, only that our ways of getting at it are.

This entails the "inherence" you invoke. To clarify this idea we need to come to a clear understanding of what an "objective characteristic" is. I don't think there is such a thing as a purely objective characteristic, only characteristics which are more or less acceptable. Characteristics, insofar as they are communicable, are human constructions. I won't get into this because it gets complex and difficult but I am sure it could be clearly worked out.

I will say, however, that this "objectivity of goodness" is based on our virtually identical neurological makeup as humans.

The alien is confused because he has no art in his culture (and perhaps no experience of "goodness") so he can only observe our behavior. Come to think of it, that's what most people in the art world do also. What conclusion can we draw from that, I wonder.

Yes, "calling attention" is a different skill than seeing. It is certainly possible to have one skill and not the other. Circumstances also play a big part in this.



November 26, 2008, 7:00 PM

While I think you're basically right, Opie, I wonder if part of the reason for some people's failure of discernment when it comes to art is some sort of neurological 'impairment', although perhaps it's wrong to speak of it as a disability, when aesthetic feeling doesn't serve much of a particular useful function in the contect of apreciating art (as separate from the initial evolutionary function it must have arisen from), and doesn't necessarily mean they don't take pleasure from some kind of "art"; rather, for these "different" types, it just expresses itself as a tendency to appreciate art that, perhaps, you and I might naturally recognize as sub-par...




November 26, 2008, 9:07 PM

This will sound more negative than it is, but I'll say it anyway. Epistemology, whether philosophical or scientific, seems destined to most resemble a snake eating its own tail.

That said, it is clear we acquire knowledge, whatever that is, and that knowledge is quite useful. We are much better at understanding "stuff" than we are at understanding understanding itself.

I can neither buy into nor opt out of the "neurological theory". It might be true that the experience of beauty as objective is contained by our neurons, in which case it is not objective at all, but mutually subjective. But it is also possible that the humans who were best at surviving had neurons that could accurately assess whatever is "out there" and so eventually their neural makeup became completely dominant. However, the latter argument is more convincing with regard to engagement with the brute physical world than the aesthetic dimension of it.

If MC is onto something, there is a lot of "impairment" amongst us with respect to contemporaneous art, but not much "impairment" at all with respect to old museum art. Practically everyone loves the old masters. Or do they really?

I'd better watch it or I'll soon be eating my own tail.



November 26, 2008, 9:14 PM

Interestingly, painting "more and more seriously" played a positive role in resolving his frustration with criticism. Does that ring anyone's bell besides mine?

And how. Are you saying that he painted?

To clarify this idea we need to come to a clear understanding of what an "objective characteristic" is. I don't think there is such a thing as a purely objective characteristic, only characteristics which are more or less acceptable. Characteristics, insofar as they are communicable, are human constructions.

As I've said elsewhere, I think "objective" is an unfortunate framing of the problem. We could provisionally say that an objective characteristic is one that persists apart from opinion. My opinion doesn't affect the operation of gravity, for instance. But again, I think we experience a subjective/objective split because we can't feel our brains working. The reaction to art is just as subject to causation as anything else that exists. I think everything belongs in the objective category, at which point "objective" is the wrong word. We just understand some processes better than others, and consciousness is one of the most poorly understood processes we have.

Quality is rightness of relation. I'm thinking of a triangle, with the perceiver as one side, perceived as another, and quality as the hypotenuse. It doesn't make sense to talk about these things as being separate - they are one phenomenon. We could talk about a good bathtub, one with a pleasing, comfortable shape and the ability to hold heat, but it makes no sense to talk about the quality of bathtubs independent of bathers. A good bathtub presumes bathers. But neither does it mean that quality only exists in the perceptions of the bathers. The two other legs persist, quality and the thing perceived, waiting for a perceiver to come back and actualize it. I believe that art works the same way. The Rembrandt portrait is put together on the presumption of a viewer. It persists, and its quality persists, even in the absence of viewers. When the viewers return, quality becomes actualized again.



November 26, 2008, 10:21 PM

Re 17, I don't see it as being "impaired" or "defective," but rather as having different degrees of a certain visual aptitude which, while desirable, is not necessary for survival or even for a reasonably functional, productive and satisfying life.

I expect one reason so many evidently don't "get it" aesthetically is that they don't really need to, just as nobody really needs to be a great athlete or a superlative dancer or a wonderful singer. It's simply not required.

In other words, the reason so few have an eye like Greenberg's is that such an eye is a bonus, a luxury, a gift, something way beyond actual necessity. Expecting everyone to see art like that is like expecting everyone to be drop-dead gorgeous. It's never happened and it never will.



November 26, 2008, 11:01 PM

Yes Clem painted in the 50s. He also "assisted" David Smith in a series of paintings that were exhibited in San Antonio during the 80s. Smith normally painted very bad pictures, ones that were "renderings" of sculpture he imagined, set against garish monotoned backgrounds. They were just dumb. If Picasso could say "dumb like a painter", Smith's typical painterly output justifies saying "dumb like a sculptor". But when Clem physically participated, Smith's pictures soared - did not look like anything else Smith did. They probably belonged more to Clem than Smith, though that is a guess. When I talked with Clem after seeing the show, he did not quite go so far as to claim the pictures, but said Smith couldn't paint that well otherwise.

With respect to a certain steel sculpture that Tony Caro wanted to claim, Clem held out for himself and ultimately took it home as his own. I spoke with the sculptor Willard Boepple who did the actual welding of the piece and he said it was Clem's work, not Caro's. Caro, I was told by both guys, disagreed. I found the work in Clem's back yard and it was so good I put it into a show I curated for St. Lawrence University.

Clem also showed me many really fine figure drawings he was doing in the 80s. He talked at length about discomfort with his model because she was so frank about presenting her body, all of it, for him to draw. He was a man of manners, as far as he was concerned. He frequently called out anyone he felt was in violation of them, including me, which some might say was the most unmannerly thing anyone can do, but that was part of his obsession with them. He said manners were instilled in him during his upbringing in Virginia (I think it was).

This model upset him because he felt her frank posing went over the line for maintaining good manners. But that didn't stop him from bringing her back for more sessions and I doubt that he ever scolded her for these "transgressions". Instead, she scared him and it was good for his drawings, as if her great comfort with every part of herself knocked him down a notch so that his drawings could go up a notch or two. I think he knew that. From looking at them I could imagine that he had made subtle suggestions that she alter the pose to relieve some of the tension before the drawing commenced. The work was very delicate but not cowardly so. Ultimately, delicate with great aesthetic confidence and lingering sensuality, even if he could not get psychologically comfortable with the working situation itself. His conflict had become part of his studio process, and reminded me that resistance is a necessary part of anyone's attempt to make art. If absolutely everything always goes smoothly in the studio the work will smoothly head down.

Clem's mind was gigantic, but he didn't get all those insights into art by simply looking at it and looking at artist's studios. He was an artist himself though he did not present himself that way. I have always wondered what he might have done if that great mind of his had not taken him down the path it did.



November 26, 2008, 11:16 PM

Franklin, your gymnastics about objectivity are hard to follow, but if you are saying art without an audience tends to wind up flatlining, I totally agree. That seems to be the perdicament that our time's best art is stuck with, in fact, and unfortunately. Saying one makes art totally for one's self is cheating about the reality of it.



November 26, 2008, 11:39 PM

I apologize for the lack of clarity - it's not for want of trying. It's almost as if the English language doesn't want me to get this thought together.

Let's go back to our alien. This alien looks at the grass, and it sees the grass operating in its grassy way, dependent on soil, air, water, and sunlight. Grass doesn't really have a separate existence from water. If you separate the water component of grass from grass, you get dead grass. Because of its powers of observation, it sees everything on the planet the same way - parts can be distinguised from one another but they operate as a single piece, a whole network.

It extends this view to us. We feel ourselves to be having a subjective response to an objectively extant work of art, but the alien sees us and the object acting together in one operation. We have built these things to satisfy us, and that satisfaction is measurable as a particular heart rate, the release of endorphins, electrical activity in certain areas of the brain, and other things detectable by the alien's superior perceptions. These objects please our eyes, just as hammers fit our hands and socks fit our feet. That fitness is quality.

I'm not sure that was much better.

I had no idea any of that was true about Greenberg. Wow.



November 27, 2008, 12:45 AM

I'm puzzled by your rather forceful negative opinion of Smith's paintings, John. I have liked just about everything I have seen. I would particularly like to see the pictures that grew out of the exchange you described. I never heard of it.

My only direct experience with Clem making art was in Jim and Annie Walsh's studio once back in the 80s when we all decided to paint some pictures together. Clem was diffident and hestitant and finally broke off, indicating he wasn't enjoying himself. I was able to grab one of the pictures he made, which he gladly relinquished. It is nice enough, an abstraction made with thinned acrylics, I believe, but nothing special. I'd rather have one of his earlier landscapes, which I have seen.

We make the whole subjective/objective thing too complicated by not simply looking at the facts. My "neurological theory" is nothing esoteric. It is merely simple fact. We are all 99.9% the same, therefore whatever it is about good art that makes it good art is, as you say "mutually subjective". Problem is, of course, that "mutually subjective" is exactly what we call "objective". It's a mess. Better to forget it.

The alien sees one person make something called art which is presented to another person with the implicit direction that it is to be seen and experienced in a certain way, which can be specified. We do this, react according to to our experience and pass judgement. We do the same thing with just about everything. The difference is that art insists that our reaction is100% intuitive, free of specifiable criteria.

Now, because there are no criteria there are all kinds of different reactions, and we get into the fruitless subjective/objective quandry and think it is "all a matter of taste".

What does this tell us? Not that there is no such thing as "objective" great art, but that there is as much a talent for seeing art as for making it, and that very few people take the time and effort to work at seeing it. In other words, seeing art takes work - training, effort, time - all the same sort of thing it takes to be a good plumber or oenophile, and, further, all the work is to no avail if there is no underlying talent. Some people can see it and others can't.

I have seen these things at work for so long and in so many instances that I really don't have any doubts about the way it works.

BTW, no, people do not all love the old masters. Rembrandt may be in the museum, and everyone accepts that he is a master. But very few really "get" Rembrandt.



November 27, 2008, 1:26 AM

Franklin, no need to apologize for lack of clarity about a subject no one has ever made clear, in my experience, at least.

The problem with resorting to this alien thing is that we wind up postulating that it has powers of perception superior to ours. That is the same thing as saying we don't and can't analyze this activity with our human capacity being what it is. So the common sense in me keeps saying, if we can't figure it out, why are we trying? At best we are guessing that a physical process exists that could be understood by some higher power. Or heck, a spiritual process. It doesn't matter once we admit we can't take it apart with a degree of certitude that matches our certitude that we are having the experience when we are having it.

In a similar vein, Christian theologians of the middle ages thought heaven was experiencing the Beatific Vision ... forever. That is, knowing the perfection of God (a kind of "fitness" on steroids, to use your term) was it, everything, complete, all wrapped up in total unity, unable to be taken apart or otherwise explained. What interests me is they couched this in aesthetic terms. The aesthetic seems like a good choice when you refer to something that is definitely experienced, can be sort of talked about, but is not explainable in any clear manner.

I don't think English is in your way - you are extremely masterful with it. The beautiful object can be experienced, but like God, it can't be broken down by the intellect, only acknowledged. It is ultimately a monolith of unity that resists analysis.

I don't really think I'm getting anywhere with this either. Maybe it is truly spiritual.



November 27, 2008, 1:30 AM

Rembrandt may be in the museum, and everyone accepts that he is a master. But very few really "get" Rembrandt.

I have to agree. When I began thinking like that, that is when I realized I was about to eat my own tail.



November 27, 2008, 1:41 AM

Are any geneticists out there looking for the gene that's responsible for my contemporary art dyspepsia? Or the genetic switch that's responsible for all the indigestible art?



November 27, 2008, 2:34 AM

I'm puzzled by your rather forceful negative opinion of Smith's paintings, John. I have liked just about everything I have seen. I would particularly like to see the pictures that grew out of the exchange you described. I never heard of it.

It was a Smith retro of sorts at the San Antonio Museum of Art devoted to his flat work and included some of his journals (encased in glass, of course). The dorkiest paintings were very small (20 x 24 or so), overworked, three dimensional, sort of surreal, and had a completely clear relationship to his sculpture. But there were some very large pictures that appeared to use abstract cutouts (probably cardboard or something similar) as frisket that was later removed. He used sprays and drips/strokes/splatters of paint to bring the shapes up, but left the space dead flat.

Some of them were shown last January at friend of Jack Larry Gagosian's gallery in New York in an exhibit curated by Candida Smith (his daughter) and Peter Stevens, the director of his estate. It was called David Smith: Sprays and there is no acknowledgement of Clem's role in making them on the page announcing the show. It does say the last time they were exhibited was nearly 30 years ago, which coincides with my memory of the San Antonio exhibit. But they don't mention San Antonio by name for the 80s, just the Hirshhorn and National Gallery from that decade.

The flat ones astonished me as much as the others repulsed me, so as soon as I got back to MI I called Clem to ask about his take on them. That's when he told me he had helped paint them, which surprised me some, but it explained how they got to be so head and shoulders above the others, which he agreed were pretty lame. I don't think my brain cells have rearranged themselves about that conversation either. It is the kind of thing I remember. I think just about anyone serious about modernism would.

Maybe the awful ones were early and not that numerous in the total body of work, but there were too many of them in San Antonio. I found it hard to forgive him for doing them, or more pointedly, for them being in that show (everyone makes dogs). So I had an exaggeratedly negative reaction to him as a painter that I have carried forward. But the good ones were so damn good and bad ones so damn bad. I found it interesting that the Gagosian publicity does not mention San Antonio, just the allusion that sometime way back when some of these things were shown. You have seen a lot more Smiths than I have but I'm surprised you never saw the dogs from SA. It's speculation, but if I were the Smith estate, I would suppress them. I went through 10 pages of images on google and could not find any of the doggy ones, though there are a number of the good ones.

In short, the Gagosian show is about the series of good ones I discussed with Clem. I'm convinced he played a significant role in the series, but can't say exactly what it was. Apparently, it is not something that we are supposed to know about.



November 27, 2008, 2:43 AM

Ahab, the "new vision" video made me mad. Should be retitled the "stinky vision: send your money in".



November 27, 2008, 2:52 AM

Opie, there may be "no criteria" for art, but there are standards set by successful art of the past. In one way or another, we measure the new stuff with that as a yardstick. Or we used to do it that way, if "we" means the culture in general. Nowadays, "we" in that sense uses a lot of criteria but few standards.



November 27, 2008, 3:09 AM

My only direct experience with Clem making art was in Jim and Annie Walsh's studio once back in the 80s when we all decided to paint some pictures together. Clem was diffident and hestitant and finally broke off, indicating he wasn't enjoying himself.

Yeah, he probably felt he had just mixed it up with the front seven of the Green Bay Packers. That must have been some mixture of potent personalities. Did anything good come of it?



November 27, 2008, 9:35 AM

When writing about art, about the "basics", I understand that I can't figure it out. I may try to eat away at the "mystery" some but my main effort is to establish clarity, to cut away the abstract and the theoretical and describe the art-making enterprise as we actually go about it so we can establish acceptable ground rules and talk about it more sensibly.

However I do think the subjective/objective thing can and should be disposed of completely - that's a matter of logic and common sense. Some of the other matters probably should be examined by someone with scientific training. The problem is that the scientists who have examined art don't understand art and don't go at it coming from art. It's kind of a circular no-win situation. And there is no real effort to gain this kind of understanding anywhere anyway. I quess it is too "interdiscplinary".

I will have to look into the Smith thing. Those spray pix come up at auction a lot. They presumably came out of his habit of laying out sulpture parts on the floor to arrange them and when he begn painting them with spray paint he noticed that they made nice patterns and started making pictures that way. I'm pretty sure they were made at different times rather than in one session with Clem - is that what you are saying?

There was a show of the ones you dislike (I assume) in Miami some years ago. They are earlier than the spray pix and often very rough and clunky and "tasteless", but i thought quite powerful and convincing.

I don't think much came from that session with Clem. It only lasted an hour or so. I think I was working on clay slabs at the time but I really can't remember.



November 27, 2008, 11:46 AM

Ahab, that dyspepsia can only be treated by avoiding what triggers it. At least that's my solution. The Basel circus is due to hit these parts in early December, and I don't even want to read about it, let alone participate. It might as well be auto racing on TV, more or less (albeit far more pretentious, obviously).



November 27, 2008, 1:22 PM

Franklin, you write "I think everything belongs in the objective category, at which point "objective" is the wrong word." I could say the same, substituting "subjective" for "objective". The distinction is either useless or terminally unclear.

We say "the sun is warm" is an objective fact, thinking that "objective" means "universally true". But the sun and warmth and truth iself are all human constructions because we are organisms trying to live in an environment and we invented languge to help us deal with this. Proof and truth are really nothing more than adjustments of language.

"The sun is warm and that is good" is commonly accepted as true; it is common experience so we have no problem accepting it and calling it "objective".

"That is work of art and it is good" is much less familiar experience, probably very limited, lacking criteria for evaluation and unless certified by museum ownership likely to be arguable. Furthermore, everyone has experienced the warmth of the sun and its beneficial effects but relatively few have experienced the deep thrill of great art.

So, it is not either/or, it is a sliding scale. It is not "objective" vs "subjective", it is commonly accepted by universal experience or backed by accepted tests of proof vs. seldom experienced and unfamiliar and lacking criteria. All other evaluations (guesswork, usually) are somewhere inbetween. That's just the way it is.

Art further complicates things by demanding to be judged completely withouf criteria. In fact, this could be said to be the defining condition for art, or for art and other things like art, and insofar as this is true, it follows logically that art quality can never be domonstrated because once proven it is by definition no longer art, or no longer being experienced as art.



November 27, 2008, 2:11 PM

art quality is demonstrated by art quality.



November 27, 2008, 2:29 PM

About that San Antonio show: The good pictures used the halo effect from spraying but painterly marks crossed the boundaries as well and played a significant role. As best I can remember it, Clem said he helped paint them, he was part of their making, but said they were Smith's, not his. He was serious in talking about them. It ties into his statement quoted somewhere above that he was taking his own painting "more and more seriously" in the 50s.

I got the impression that they worked together on every painting of that type in the show. There were not that many, maybe 10, maybe more - the numbers are fuzzy. Perhaps Smith continued with the method after doing them, or perhaps the ones Clem helped with were made somewhere in the middle. The conversation was focused on what I saw in the show.

The bad pictures were not like those shown in Miami, of which I have seen a few JPEGs.

This may be a sensitive subject to some, you know, related to the contention "Greenberg told artists what to paint", only more so. It's OK when two artists work together, like the Louis and Noland "jam paintings" or Pollock and Tony Smith's "drunken crawling with paint" effort. But Greenberg is walled in as a meddling critic, as if that rules out (moralistically) the possiblity of him ever having anything to say, visually.

I'd love to find some docmentation of the San Antonio show. I'm getting more and more curious why it is so hard to find.



November 27, 2008, 2:49 PM

Found something on his estate web site: in 1982 the Archives of American Art (of the Smithsonian) organized From The Life of the Artist: A Documentary View of David Smith that ran from November 4, 1982 until January 2, 1983. It then travelled to the San Antonio Museum of Art where it opened March 27 and ran until June. They indicate there was some sort of publication associated with the show.

There was a heavy emphasis on "his life" - personal journals, etc. that seemed very out of place and beside the point of the work. But given the title, the organizers may have seen it the other way around.



November 27, 2008, 2:57 PM

I wonder how Rosalind Krauss would react to my recollection of the conversation with Clem about this show.



November 27, 2008, 3:17 PM

John - let me know what you find. This whole thing is new to me. Smith did the spray paintings from the late 50s through the 60s, at least. I have seen paintings of his which are failures but really none that should provoke the kind of reaction you describe.

"Meddlesome critic" indeed. I wish he would have meddled more. All he did when he looked at my paintings is grunt and point and indicate vague approval or the opposite, or, at best: "You're hot!". The most he would do as suggestion was a few inches here there on a cropping decision, or sometimes which way up looked best.,



November 27, 2008, 3:41 PM

this past week i had a conversation with the daughter of sculptor isaac witkin. of course greenberg came up. in relaying what her father had mostly told her, greenberg had an unbelievable eye and could always pick out the masterpiece amongst other pieces. she went on to say that greenberg was seen as a large looming respected presence who took an active role in the direction of caro's, as well as other sculptors, work when he was around and the artists usually responded in kind.

i mentioned that in regards to painters that it was my understanding that greenberg did not take such a forceful, active contribution in the art making process and direction of the group of painters he was usually associated with.

she said she could not really speak to that, but when greenberg told caro or other associated sculptors to make a change they usually did.

as can be read elsewhere, she said the smith family was very upset with the way greenberg handled the estate. in relation, she noted how frustrating it was to deal with the mess that was left to her when her father passed a few years ago. so much was lost, stolen or otherwise disappeared.



November 27, 2008, 4:17 PM

The Hirshhorn says it ran the "documentary" show from November 4, 1982 through January 16, 1983. Grace Glueck wrote about it in the Novemeber 28, 1982 edition of the NYT. It was mounted at the same time the Hirshhorn also displayed David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman and the National Gallery was running David Smith.

About his painting in the larger show, Glueck said: "But the paintings, often slack and derivative, inform us clearly that, even though Smith started out as a painter, he made the right decision in choosing sculpture as his real metier. One comparision will suffice: a clumsy gouache of 1946, entitled 'Home of the Welder,' that shows a droopy siren playing a guitar to a big, leering bird, backdropped by a kind of open stall in which are displayed a variety of biomorphic sea things...Even with the inclusion of many inferior paintings, Miss McClintic has assembled a very useful show."

She did not comment on the "documentary" show.

The catalog described by McLean:

FROM THE LIFE OF THE ARTIST: A Documentary View of David Smith
Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, 1982. soft bound. First Edition.
55pp: Exhibition drawing on the papers of David Smith: a rich collection of papers, letters, journals, notes, sketches, drawings, plans and documents.

Open Library says it has 4 pages of plates.

Half Value says there are 38 illustrations with a forward by Abram Lerner (first director of the Hirschhorn).

The Internationa League of Antiiquarian Booksellers describes the catalog this way:

From the Life of the Artist: A Documentary View of David Smith; An Exhibition Drawn from the David Smith Papers.
Washington, D.C. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1982, Original Wraps Fine 55 p. 38 ill. Exhibition of original manuscripts, letters, photographs, drawings, exhibition catalogues, and memorabilia from the David Smith papers at the Archives of American Art, with notes on items exhibited. Forewords by Abram Lerner and William F. Woolfenden; introductory essay by Garnett McCoy.

None of them mention paintings. Perhaps the Hirshhorn decided to include a few from the larger exhibition when it travelled the "documentary" to San Antonio.



November 27, 2008, 4:48 PM

#39, the meddling critic:

Clem was more explicit in my studio, which he visited several times in the 80s. He could not stand to look at art "being handled" so he would look away (and sometimes complain) while I moved things into position for him to see.

I remember one statement clearly (after he asked my age - which happened to be 42), "If you want to be a great artist, then fuck around more" and he didn't mean have sex. He also pointed to the area where I gessoed canvases on the floor and had created a series of overlapping lines of brush marks because I routinely gessoed the edges and said "that's where it's at for you" and indeed that is where I finally wound up many years later.

His remarks were often short, as in good, too ornate, very OK, what a change, but not vague. And of course, the occassional suggestion to crop or re-orient the top.

He would say personal things too, like I was too nice or he was afraid I could see right through him, but not when confronting the pictures directly.

Now that I am dwelling on it, I can imagine him saying "fuck around more" to David Smith and then proceeding to demonstrate it on a canvas. It may have been my misfortune to have created a too handy example for him to point to in my gessoing area. Would have been quite an experience to mix it up with the guy using paint instead of words.



November 27, 2008, 4:54 PM

Yes, the first time he saw my strictly minimal paintings, in 1959 or 59, he pointed to older, looser work and told me that's what I would be doing in 10 years. I thought he was completely wrong, and I said so, but 10 years later I was doing looser work.



November 27, 2008, 5:38 PM

I'm afraid to say anything other than I'd like to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.




November 27, 2008, 5:51 PM

And a very happy Thanksgiving to you too, George.



November 28, 2008, 2:40 AM

Thanks George. Same to you.



November 28, 2008, 3:22 AM

One last finding on the Smith documentary show. Although the Hirschhorn does not say that the show of his works travelled to San Antonio, Miranda McClintic (its main curator) lists on her resume that it traveled to San Antonio - my guess is that only part of it traveled, the San Antonio Museum of Art was not very spacious in 1983 and it costs an arm and a leg to ship sculpture that valuable. Hence, the paintings I saw were probably from the McClintic organized show and accompanied the Archives of American Art's "documentary" stuff.

It's been fun unravelling these details. I could not find one image of the gouache entitled Home of the Welder with google, though I could find plenty of the sculpture with the same name. Clem, Glueck, and myself all agreed there were some poor paintings in the show and I'll leave it at that.



November 28, 2008, 4:10 PM

i just scrolled through all 195 images for auction items that askart has listed for david smith over the last 19 years.

the split between actual sculptures and drawings/paintings/sketches was almost even at 50/50. from the drawings/paintings/sketches group i'd say that overwhelmingly the best pieces were of the sprayed variety. and, almost everyone of these was good or better. as for other work from this group it was a complete mixed bag of mostly black ink sketches and drawings. very little from this sector seemed very good or better.



November 28, 2008, 8:21 PM

Just read an interesting piece in the only art mag I can stomach these days, Art & Auction. A still young Italian collector, who's certainly well off but not super rich, has put together a stunning collection of Neapolitan Baroque paintings over the past 25 years. They're all over his house, including the bathroom.

He says they're not as cheap as when he started out, but that it's still possible to get a major work for 200-500K. He's branched off a bit into things like a van Dyck that was sold as "studio of" and turned out to be a real van Dyck, and a preliminary version of the Forge of Vulcan by, yes, Velazquez.

Now that's what I call collecting. Makes me feel even more disdainful of all these zillionaires who could get just about anything and go out and buy...Damien Hirst.



November 28, 2008, 8:27 PM

I don't read ART & AUCTION regularly but it is way more interesting than other art magazine because it has FACTS and very little of the tiresome blovaloney the others have.

The detailed descriptions of pictures coming up for auction amount to far better and more interesting criticism than what the critics do.



November 28, 2008, 10:03 PM

I quite agree, OP. Of course, sometimes I find it disturbing. Like in this issue, there's a story about how the market for surrealist work may be picking up. I couldn't bring myself to read it; just looking at the pictures made me queasy enough.


not a zillionaire who buys dead sharks....just an artist who loves tuna

November 29, 2008, 6:48 AM

Thats because those zillionaires are on the same level of collecting as Damian is as an artist...



November 29, 2008, 10:54 AM

jack thanks for the heads up.

the article with all the photos can be seen on the art & auction page which is reached via very good site that also has modern painters link among lots of other stuff.


Chris Rywalt

November 29, 2008, 11:26 PM

Speaking of Greenberg the artist, I recently went through Art Czar and the author clearly discusses Greenberg's artwork and essentially makes fun of it. Others have savaged the book on Amazon and so forth and I thought it was a hatchet job; until I got near the end of the book and caught the author's offhand remarks about Postmodernism, which she also made fun of, at which point I decided she didn't hate Greenberg, she hates everybody. It's not a very good book in a lot of ways, but it does directly quote Greenberg, and discuss basic facts about his life (such as his art), enough to make it worth reading once.

Some here might wish Greenberg had been more active with his criticism and advice in the studio, but in my experience, all artists tend to give advice designed to turn you into the same kind of artist they are (or prefer). Very, very few people are capable of guiding you towards the artist you want to be, rather than the artist they wish you were. I imagine Greenberg knew that, and that may be why he grunted and pointed so much.

I find it interesting when someone says Greenberg could point out the best work in the room. Do you think he was really that good, or do you think there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here? I have to admit, when Jerry Saltz pointed out the painting of mine he liked best, it was one I was fond of, although probably not my favorite; but I do look at the painting differently since he did that. Likewise when Franklin was here looking over the previous year or so of my work (was it last year?), I admitted being somewhat unsure of this one painting, and he said, "That's the best painting in the room!" Which is really what I already thought anyway, but now I have one more opinion to back me up on it.



November 29, 2008, 11:44 PM

January 16th is the 100th aniversary of his birth.

Are you planning a party?



November 29, 2008, 11:46 PM

And, you could kick off a new movement called "Flatulence"



November 30, 2008, 12:58 AM

Flatulence usually precedes a movement, Ben.


Chris Rywalt

November 30, 2008, 2:12 AM

Well played. Nearly as old as Greenberg would be and still on the ball.



November 30, 2008, 2:18 AM

I was just in Toronto, and went to the newly reopened (and Frank Gehry refurbished) Art Gallery of Ontario. I went into the museum bookstore, and after having a difficult time finding an art criticism section, I was finally directed to the "art essays" shelves on which prominently stood several copies of 'Art Czar', and exactly zero copies of anything actually written by Greenberg himself.
So typical...



November 30, 2008, 9:33 AM

Harvard is holding a symposium entitled "Clement Greenberg at 100: Looking Back to Modern Art," April 3-4 next year (PDF). "We particularly seek proposals that extend or challenge traditional notions of Greenberg’s art criticism or that propose new ways of understanding Greenberg’s influence over the long twentieth century," they say. They might try taking him at his word - that would be pretty new.



November 30, 2008, 10:58 AM

The Necee mentioned in the original post just came back from the AGO with pictures of the new spread, and it looks lovely. As for the bookstore, well, typical. It was the same deal at the Walker.



November 30, 2008, 11:57 AM

Well, since "traditional notions" and the usual "understanding" of Greenberg and his 'influence' are so off the mark, it seems like a few artblog regulars might have something valuable to add to this symposium. I'd love to see you tackle the project in a way they wouldn't expect, Franklin...

As for the AGO, 'respectful' and 'restrained' seem to be the adjectives of choice to describe Gehry's work, which seems to point to the fact that he didn't do much. I never saw the old building, but the new glass facade, and wooded galleria behind it on the second floor, look just fine to me, like a very classy new train station. The rest of the building seemed untouched, and none the worse for it.

It's the AGO's curators that need the most help...



November 30, 2008, 2:39 PM

I sent and email to the Harvard thing, suggesting more or less what Franklin said.

It's hopeless, of course. Academics have their own version of reality, and they will not yield it in the name of truth or common sense or reality or any other trivial persuasion.



November 30, 2008, 3:18 PM

As I read the announcement, submissions appear to be restricted to currently enrolled GRADUATE STUDENTS - they have already selected their heavies. I'll email them to see if that is the case.



November 30, 2008, 6:28 PM

Well, the Miami Basel, uh, experience, starts in a couple of days and lasts through next weekend. For some reason I can't stop yawning, but never mind. Been there, done that. Actually, overdone it, and the yield was mighty skimpy. It used to be I'd have to find reasons to exclude a venue; now I can hardly find reasons to include one, even with a free entry pass (let alone without one). But everyone in the clique, I mean in the know, swears it will be just as fabulous as ever, if not more so. Unfortunately, I'm way beyond fabulous--not that it ever panned out as advertised. Not even close.


Chris Rywalt

November 30, 2008, 6:47 PM

I considered (albeit very briefly) going to Miami this year just because so many gallerists I know (or am familiar with) are down there. I've been trying to focus on my reviews and making connections more, and I thought Miami might be worth it.

Then I realized I spent a month away from my studio because I couldn't afford anything to paint on and scrapped the idea.



November 30, 2008, 11:48 PM

MC: My understanding, from attending the press preview at AGO, is that Frank Gehry & Co. worked to transform almost every aspect of the building. Some galleries may not have been totally gutted and changed, but attention was paid to details throughout concerning the walls, floors, panels, lighting, etc. Gehry mentioned that there were some rooms he didn't touch at all, because they were "perfect." My understanding is these were a small percentage. Perhaps Gehry is so in tune with the place because his grandmother lived a few blocks away and he went to the museum as a child.

From my press materials: "The expansion enlarges the AGO by 190,000 square feet of renovated space and 97,000 square feet of newly built space, and increases art-viewing by 47 per cent."

The building is absolutely stunning. It's worth a visit if only to see the enormous room filled with primo Henry Moore sculptures.

Franklin: The correct name of the road you mention at the top is the "Jamaicaway."

Everyone else: Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah. Franklin & Dawn moved to Boston! (Go Celtics!)



December 1, 2008, 12:17 AM

The room with the Moore plasters blew me away too, Necee. I believe that was one of the 'untouched' rooms. I had not been to the gallery before the renovation though, so I couldn't really say what has changed and what hasn't, for sure. It's too bad all the construction and installation wasn't finished in time for the grand re-opening.



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