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Now let us praise The New Criterion

Post #1434 • December 21, 2009, 11:56 AM • 149 Comments

This morning I turned in my Art Basel Miami Beach piece for The New Criterion. While none too pleased with my progress in the studio, the last few months have been unprecedentedly productive for me as a writer: catalogue essays for John Sanchez and Darby Bannard, my first piece for TNC (the Prendergast review), and now this. A man wonders: Are the Fates trying to tell me something? Clement Greenberg:

Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of "elevated" writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging—if only because so few people have done it well enough to be remembered—but I'm not sure the challenge is worth it.

Well, it is done. Brenda Ueland said that when you let your talents go unused, you sin against the Holy Spirit. That I have the ability to do something with a keyboard besides hit myself over the head is a gift and a marvel. The painting will come back. It always has.

Meanwhile, I can't recommend The New Criterion to you highly enough. December is its ninth annual art issue. Within you'll find Michael J. Lewis on the Bauhaus show at MoMA, Marco Grassi on a Trecento masterpiece, Karen Wilkin on Gorky at the Philly Museum of Art, Eric Gibson on a show of British modernism at the Royal Academy, Mario Naves taking down Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, and James Panero's gleeful dissection of the art market. Subscribe, I beseech you, or at least pick up this issue, and perhaps January's as well since, well, cough. Pace Greenberg in his moment of doubt, it's worth it.




December 21, 2009, 12:37 PM

I might actually have to go to the library and read this thing. Everything sounds good. I know or am familiar with all the writers. Your phrase "gleeful dissection" certainly arouses my interest, Marco Grassi was even a classmate of mine.



December 21, 2009, 1:07 PM

OP, just follow the links.



December 21, 2009, 1:20 PM

Well, the links work for the Panero, Naves and Lewis pieces. The others you have to get the actual magazine (Books & Books in the Gables has it in the art section of their magazine area at the entrance to the store, before you actually go inside the store proper).



December 21, 2009, 1:24 PM

Subscription options include an online-only version for $38, with access to those other pieces. There's also a $3/article charge for online access, or $10 for a five-pack.


George R

December 21, 2009, 1:51 PM

Mario Naves taking down Kandinsky at the Guggenheim is lame to say the least, and veers off the track with the Theosophy angle. it's the least interesting of the four I read.

Roberta Smith at the NYT does a much better job, but then she has to rub shoulders with all the rich :^)

I still think it's one of the best painting exhibitions in a decade.



December 21, 2009, 1:53 PM

Too bad you left Miami. You were the only one who was clear and not afraid of writing about the shows in town. In fact, you were respected by a lot of artists and at the same time hated. But they hated you because you were writing the truth. The fact is that you were gaining power and some dealers and directors didn't like that. In some ways, they won and Miami lost. Miami does not have an art critic with an art education. What we have now are 4 freelance cats who are either girlfriend or boyfriend of artists; and probably took some writing classes while in school. The Miami Herald is a joke with the exception of El Nuevo Herald. The guy from New Times couldn't even write the proper title of the Smithsonian inauguration show at FIU and the critic(?) at Miami Art Exchange didn't even mentioned that show but wrote about the Rubell's Bas this is what goes on in here. You could have easily become the "critic with the power" if you only had stayed....Miami misses you and I'm sure there is still a chance for you here. But thinking about it, you are currently in a city where culture is more appreciated and with more interesting shows to write about.



December 21, 2009, 2:50 PM

A five-pack? If I throw in a couple of extra bucks, can I get a six-pack so I can run around shirtless on South Beach? Of course, I'd still need a little designer dog to go with that, but one step at a time.



December 21, 2009, 3:13 PM

Mystified, Miami's not a serious place, certainly not when it comes to the arts. Oh, there's huffing and puffing and posturing and so on, but I mean, please. What matters here is not critical power, but money, though I suppose it's more or less the same everywhere else now. If you're rich enough and "committed" enough to the scene, you're golden. "Validation" from the system is guaranteed.



December 21, 2009, 3:45 PM

Kandinsky seems to have been a link in an -art-historical chain more than a Great Artist. Did he blaze trails or did he proceed along the lines of logically unfolding events and wave directional signals to others?

Smith's idea of the relationship between F L Wright's building and Kandinsky's paintings seems inaccurate. Wright had had his architectural idea (based on the structure of a conch shell) well before the Guggenheim people approached him. For Wright, the Guggenheims represented an opportunity to realize his idea, and if they wanted to put their art collection in it, ok, whatever. I recall reading that, after being shown the highlights of the Guggenheim Collection, wright asked "What is this stuff?" He seemed to have little understanding of and even less use for the Collection.

While in the Guggenheim, I've had the impression that the wonderful enclosed space of the rotunda is really the point of that building. I've never seen any art exhibited there which successfully competes for my attention with Wright's architectural idea. I don't think that's the fault of the art; Wright's idea doesn't work as an exhibition space for art. I know an argument about that began when the building opened, and continues.

Louis Kahn, Wright's most important protege, showed with his great finale, The Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth TX, that a building designed to operate in a subordinant role as a showcase for an art collection doesn't have to mean a diminution of the building's architectural stature.


George R

December 21, 2009, 4:46 PM

Tim, Kandinsky was viewed as a visionary in his own time by his peers. At the start there is Picasso and there is Kandinsky. The paintings are spectacular.

Whatever Roberta reported concerning the Guggenheim, Wright, Rebay and Kandinsky is factually correct according to the documentation I've read,

Rebay was a real sleeper in this circle, she was an excellent painter and an avid collector. A good part of the 60+ drawings in the exhibition were from her collecting activiies. All of this surprised me.



December 21, 2009, 5:19 PM

George R:

Smith writes "The circling ramp of Wright’s rotunda was surely designed with that Russian’s swirling, unanchored abstractions in mind. Kandinsky’s precarious, ever-moving compositions suggest that he never met a diagonal he didn’t like; Wright obliged with a museum on a perpetual tilt.

Wright might deny the connection..."

Nothing factual there.



December 21, 2009, 5:26 PM

If Wright did not have as a top priority the optimal display or showcasing of the art works, and if he had no real feeling for or interest in said works, then he was unfit to design a museum (where the contents are clearly supposed to take precedence over the building housing them). Unfortunately, as has no doubt happened in other cases and will happen again, the museum people apparently wanted a trophy building regardless, and Wright apparently wanted another monument to his ego. One wonders what Kandinsky would have thought of the matter.


George R

December 21, 2009, 5:40 PM

Kandinsky and FLW

"Kandinsky is a central figure in the history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His works not only represent a part of the core and essence of the collection, but also helped to inspire the creation of the building. In 1929, Solomon R. Guggenheim began collecting Kandinsky’s canvases under the advisement of artist Hilla Rebay. Ten years later, their enthusiasm for the artist’s paintings, among those of others exhibiting nonobjectivity—a style of abstraction with no ties to the observable world—led them to open the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York. Later, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1943 to design what has become one of the architect’s greatest masterpieces, which opened in 1959 as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum." [see link]



December 21, 2009, 5:41 PM

Jack, I get the idea that the people making the decisions really didn't choose Wright for the reasons you or I might've. Whatever the reasons, I don't think the result works out for the collection. One of the problems I have is that whenever I'm on the ramp, besides wondering why I came without a skateboard, I can't look at a painting displayed on one of those walls without constant cross-referencing of the distances and difference in angle between the ramp and the leveled bottom edge of the painting, very distracting. I would think that someone would've noticed this and the other problems, and would've vetoed the idea in deference to the collection. That there was no veto suggests your 'trophy' idea, Jack.

As for my quote from Smith's review, it is all supposition about something that is probably easily enough gotten to the bottom of.



December 21, 2009, 5:53 PM

George R, the only connection between Wright and Kandinsky attempted in the blurb in that link you directed us to, "Though Kandinsky is known for an abstraction that expressed his inner nature and Wright for his advancement of an organic architecture connected to the natural world, both advocated a spiritual, aesthetic experience of life" is pretty flimsy, and from my reading about both Kandinsky and Wright, dubious.


George R

December 21, 2009, 6:15 PM

A couple of observations on the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.
I think it goes without saying it is an incredible work of engineering and architecture. I think it's only fair to take into account that when it was first built, easel paintings were the norm. The current Kandinsky exhibition is a good example, it works well with the museum's the architecture. Since this exhibition was hung chronologically I liked the idea that I could look across the spiral at the other paintings.

I didn't have any difficulty with the bottoms of the paintings and where the floor is. I am not fond of the sloping setback on the floor which prevents getting close to the works in some of the bays and, walking uphill is hard on my knees. On the plus side all the young guards have cute butts.

It's a mistake to view the commission process of the Guggenheim as being similar to what occurs today. The Guggenheim was commissioned in 1943, in the midst of WWII, and I believe in the true spirit of Modernist optimism. While I have no doubt that the whole process was a battle of monumental egos, what resulted was one of the most spectacular works of architecture of the period. In contrast today we have the new MOMA tower which in nothing more than a large mall with apartments on top, and that's how it feels inside.


George R

December 21, 2009, 6:22 PM

Tim, Do your own Googling. I think Roberta fact checked what she wrote. There is a considerable amount of documentation available on the museum, FLW and the benefactors. I've perused the book on the museum and I have two catalogues from the Guggenheim which go into more details. I'ts just too much work to research it and type it out here to make a point.



December 21, 2009, 6:28 PM

Kandinsky has always looked a little thin to me, and Naves did a fine job elucidating why. The Smith article, in contrast, made her seem anxious to want to like his work better than she really does. That the collector of Kandinsky helped choose Wright is not strong enough to support her assertion of the two as kindred spirits, but I don't have strong enough feelings about either one of them to get worked up about it.

Mystified, thanks for writing to say so. While not every move I've made since leaving Miami panned out like I hoped it would, leaving Miami was the right choice. Apart from the fact that it was making me crazy, I had exhausted my career options. My art wasn't selling and the museums had no interest in it. There wasn't a single publication in town that could keep a art critic employed except the New Times. Those entertainment weeklies are struggling to interest a generation of readers that does not actually read, which is why the guy who's writing for the New Times is writing for the New Times.

For some reason, criticism never gains traction in Miami. I finished grad school in 1994, and since then the museums expanded their buildings or their ambitions, the collector base grew, and the number of galleries exploded. Nothing commensurate happened with criticism. Criticism in all genres is foundering as it looks for a business model in a collapsing journalistic environment, but Miami, on top of it, doesn't have a critical culture. I'm glad to hear that I was making a difference - you never know when you're just putting your stuff out there. If I return, it will be with experience at TNC, and whatever TNC leads to. That would have never happened if I had stayed.



December 21, 2009, 6:38 PM

The details, of course, are different, but I'm reminded of the currently ongoing situation with Miami's Museum of Art (MAM) and its avidly, not to say feverishly sought after major new building, despite its decidedly and undeniably NON-major collection. It's called putting the cart before the horse, but it would appear the MAM people never got that memo.

They did, however, manage to get mucho millions of public money, although, as I recall, the wording on the relevant bond issue ballot curiously did not mention the museum, let alone specify how much money would go to it. I fully expect the majority of voters were poorly informed and went mainly by the vague (and very altruistic-sounding) ballot wording, which means they didn't really know what they were approving. Still, I'm sure everyone responsible meant well. After all, these sorts of people always have the best possible motives, or so one unfailingly hears (at least officially).

Well, I guess if one is going to put on things like a glossy Vik Muniz extravaganza, one needs to have a suitable building to go with that sort of weltanschauung. After all, Miami must think Basel.



December 21, 2009, 6:46 PM

Well, George R, perhaps it's a difference in personal preference, but I don't think rectangular canvases meant to be placed on walls which take a subordinant role to the canvases work well at all on busily radiused walls with busily slanted floors. One can never get one's barings. So many have had so much trouble from the start with that and other features of the building-as-art-museum that I wonder how Wright's/Rebay's idea survived those concerns.

I bet the construction of the Guggenheim was more incredible than the engineering, because, conceptually, Wright's engineering was always simple. But every square inch of that rotunda is a construction contractors's nightmare.

And, because construction methods were in so many cases not up to what Wright was trying to do, Wright's more ambitious projects have had a tendency to start coming apart soon after they were completed. I recall noticing how, on some of the curved surfaces of the Guggenheim's exterior, that it looked as though the workers' skills were not up to attaining the sheerness that Wright's design called for.

The only theater that Wright designed, the Kalita Humphreys Theater (Dallas), at roughly the same time in Wright's career, has the same kind of construction flaws in its radiused walls.



December 21, 2009, 6:53 PM

George R: "I think Roberta fact checked what she wrote."

In the sentences of the review I quoted, Roberta didn't do any such thing. It looks as though she conjectured.



December 21, 2009, 7:03 PM

MAM's big show coinciding with the latest Miami Art Basel was/is a retrospective of Guillermo Kuitca (he of the seating plans and so forth). Maybe Wright would have felt a kinship with that.


Chris Rywalt

December 21, 2009, 7:35 PM

I lived in New York City (or near enough as makes no difference) for 39 years as of December 19 and I've never stepped foot inside the Guggenheim.



December 21, 2009, 7:50 PM

It's only natural that the literature published by the Guggenheim should say that Wright designed that museum especially for the Guggenheim, but didn't anybody besides me see that magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright show at that same museum last spring? Wright was not only a great architect, he was an incredible draftsman, and the show had more than 200 architectural drawings by him, many and maybe most of them dazzling. More to the point, the show enabled me to see how ideas that he originally dreamed up for never-realized projects were later incorporated into other buildings. The ancestor of the Guggenheim's spiral construction was clearly the design for the unbuilt Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium (1924-25). I'm perfectly willing to concede, however, that many architects (not just Wright) seem to feel that they're in some sort of a competition with painters and sculptors, the result being that museums designed by them wind up being not terribly good places to display art.



December 21, 2009, 8:15 PM

Piri, I know what you mean about architects seeing themselves in competition with other art forms, to a point where many wish their works to be regarded the same way sculpture is. But I don't think Wright, as large as his ego was, ever pretended to be an Artiste. It seems that the consistent motivation in his career was to get his ideas realized. The stories of the knavery he'd resort to and of the way he bullied his clients in order to get the buildings built to accord with his vision are legion.

But in the end it seems to me the buildings that got built are monuments to the ideas they realize, not to Wright's ego. And with the Guggenheim, I haven't seen anything in the literature which points to his being interested in anything but the realization of his idea. His relationship to the Guggenheim people was incidental to that realization, it seems.


George R

December 21, 2009, 8:24 PM

I've had enough artblog for this year.

Merry Christmas everyone!



December 21, 2009, 8:24 PM

And, Piri, by the way, I would've loved to have seen the show of Wright's renderings. They are well known around here, and I was looking closely at them when I was in high school. To me they show a lotta love lavished on the ideas and how those ideas were expressions of and elaborations of the space the buildings occupied and how well the buildings respected and occupied the space.


Chris Rywalt

December 21, 2009, 10:45 PM

Incidentally, I thought I'd note that my last comment was posted from the Windows 7 demo kiosk in the legendary Saks Fifth Avenue.



December 21, 2009, 11:48 PM

Wright's engineering was not so hot. There is an interesting exchange of letters between him and the original owners of Falling Water, where they questioned the engineering of the cantilevers. He threatened to quit simply because they questioned. The owners groveled (but with a sense of humor that Wright was a little short of) and the project continued. As soon as the supports for the cantilevers were removed, they began to crack. The owners had been right and Wright had been wrong. Recently (couple of years back), the cantilevered decks were re-engineered, rebuilt, and restored at a cost of $20 million plus.

It was not the fault of the builders. Wright was a designer, not an engineer, not a good one, anyway. Even as a designer he failed to take into account the environment created by the creek, so they have had one major flood to recover from.

Immediately after occupancy the roof sprung something like 17 leaks (flat roof technology of the time did not work very well, but he used them anyway). The sound of the creek bouncing off all the various hard surfaces inside without anything to absorb it was considered a distraction (stone walls, stone floors). That could have been addressed but wasn't.

Falling Water might just as well been titled Water Water Everywhere - the first "happening", the first to explore the "watery environment".

All that said, Falling Water is one of the greatest dwellings ever built.


Chris Rywalt

December 21, 2009, 11:57 PM

I've never experienced a Frank Lloyd Wright building -- except the Guggenheim, and that only from the outside -- so take my opinions with a helping of salt. But my feeling is he's an overrated jerk. Part of the problem is, as a trained engineer, I simply dislike architects. Architects have killed people with their ignorance (not to say disdain) of basic engineering. Wright's leaky collapsing unlivable house is relatively tame in comparison. One architect's poor design -- coupled with an on-site attempt to get it right which only made it much worse -- resulted in the deaths of 114 hundred people during the building's opening party.

There's also the fact that, at about six feet tall, I'm too big for Wright's houses.

Architects are bozos. They toss off a line on a piece of paper and are, like, "That's beautiful! Done!" Meanwhile some poor schmuck engineer has to figure out how to make that swooping line work. And get yelled at by le artiste.


Chris Rywalt

December 21, 2009, 11:59 PM

Er, not 114 hundred, obviously. That'd be a hell of a collapse! No, I mean 114, edited from "about a hundred", accidentally leaving the evidence of my edit behind. Bad copyeditor! Bad!



December 22, 2009, 12:00 AM

From his early modernist/fauve phase around the turn of the century until the mid or late 'teens Kandinsky was certainly a great painter. Much of it is very powerful stuff.

Architecture, good and bad, even more than painting, really must be experienced first hand. I have been very impressed by the Wright buildings I have been in. They feel good.

I have never cared for the Guggenheim because of its awkward relationship with most art, although I don't have a lot of trouble seeing art there (in those rare instance when they show art worth looking at). I remember Ken Nolands retrospective - yeara ago - looked very good there, for some reason.



December 22, 2009, 12:22 AM

Opie has it right. Wright's works are about two things, one being the effect of the enclosed space (which has to be experienced firsthand), and the other about how the building occupies and elaborates its surroundings.

Chris, I've known architects who have ended up being regarded as jerks because of what they had to resort to in order to get ordinary people without vision to cooperate. In the case of Wright, since there was no degree in architecture at the time, he got a degree in engineering. As an innovator he was bound to blow it from time to time. 20 million isn't a lot to spend to finish what he started at Fallingwater.



December 22, 2009, 12:34 AM

However, Opie, I'd say that Kandinsky was a great presenter of his ideas because of his skills. But I don't think those presentations were great paintings. They were more like extraordinarily compelling and enjoyable (if one gets the spirit of them) signs.



December 22, 2009, 12:46 AM

Chris, Fine Homebuilding ran an article about a house (in Wisconsin, I think) Wright designed for a tall guy - 6' 8" maybe. He scaled everything up to accommodate the guy's height.

Like many of Wright's houses, it did not hold up well, but the guy's son undertook a massive restoration and, from the pictures in the mag, it certainly looked worthy of human occupancy. I think you can rent it for a week now, or something like that, to see what it is like letting FLW control your life.

One of Wright's worst "ideas" was his refusal to use a running bond for concrete blocks in many designs. He attempted to compensate with rods, etc., but they didn't work as well as the lowly running bond, a technique that has stood the test of time.

A friend in California who lived in one out there in the relatively benign garden of eden environs, said the house was in a constant state of "crumble". I think it was one of those no-running-bond things.

There are a number of FLW houses in Kazoo. Some have been restored, at least two have simply been well maintained (roof leaks fixed immediately, clogged heating systems replaced, etc.), and others are uninhabitable. His signature carport sags on most of them that have a flat roof over it. The little tool shed that was supposed to hold them up simply was not up to the job, unless the roof had a peak. The geometry of the triangle is very strong, and the one house that I'm thinking of with a peaked roof looks very good with an inverted "V" giving high ceilings throughout, though I don't care for the plywood "furniture" that is inside it. Even with the pitch, the roof still leaked. The guy who owns it has spent a lot of money on it. But it is striking, set on several acres that front a large pond with its back to the road.

If I had the money, there are many of them I would like to live in.



December 22, 2009, 8:40 AM

Tim, that is a forced distinction. By the sme token Picasso & Braque's paintings of the same time would be even more full of "ideas".

I would venture that what we gather from painting that is verbally specific is nothing more than a symptom of their quality, if anything.



December 22, 2009, 9:23 AM

i think the fates are trying to tell you something.

from experience, sometimes it is hard at first to see that the path of least resistance is the right one. you have great talent as a critical art writer and things seem to be opening up for you. it is a great match. the art world needs someone of your quality from the younger generation.



December 22, 2009, 9:54 AM

i would say kandinsky was a great painter up until the late teens.

and i would call this 1914 painting ("painting with three spots") a masterpiece:

it hangs in the thyssen in madrid with many other fine/great paintings and it is one of the best.



December 22, 2009, 12:01 PM

1, try this for some good early ones



December 22, 2009, 12:57 PM

Opie, yes, I know the problem you have with 'ideas' being part of painting because the word connotes verbal rather than visual. I like 'ideas' presented in painting and in the terms of painting. It adds to what I get from the experience. And, in fact, I get more a sense of 'idea' than craft from, for instance, a great deal of Picasso's work.

But anyway, maybe a better word than 'ideas' for what I was saying in #34 would be 'directions.' It's really a minor point, and the truth is that I just don't find Kandinsky that compelling whether it's ideas or craft or whatever. He's all over the map, in certain cases a mile wide and an inch deep. There, I said it.



December 22, 2009, 1:37 PM

I think Kandinsky had real talent, as evidenced by his earlier work, but he short-circuited it, over-rode it or got in its way by, in essence, thinking too much and too hard. The fact he was at least inspired or driven by quackery like Theosophy obviously did not help matters. I think he didn't understand or didn't trust his real gift, and tried to channel or strait-jacket it into the wrong program. He may have been true to his intellect or philosophical understanding, such as it was, but he wasn't true to his true talent as a visual artist. It's a shame.



December 22, 2009, 3:47 PM

Tim, by ideas I assume you mean "what is this artist doing that I can use or talk about". Of course this is an interesting thing to do with painting and for an artist a necessary exercise.

But it is an auxilliary function of painting and does not necessarily correlate with painting quality. I got all kinds of good ideas from less good painters as I was learning and I still do. It doesnt mean the paintings are that good, just useful.

Kandinsky got himself off on a wrong track after the 'teens but that is beside the point of his greatness as a painter during the time that he was a great painter. That's what counts. I would rank him at least among the top couple dozen painters of the century.



December 22, 2009, 7:09 PM

nice link opie. i bought the oversized kandinsky book a few months ago and it has good images of some of these.
there are many very good pics during that ten year run and i really like 1911 "angel of last judgement" and those 1914 "wall panel" works.

it seems he and robert delauanay carried that fauvist color into abstraction. miro worked with some of those kandinsky developments and in the early 40's the american abexer's like rothko, baziotes and company were mining from what kandinsky had going in those strong 1911-1916 years as well.



December 23, 2009, 12:37 AM

I agree that Kandinsky was really great from about 1908 up until about 1914. Even though the paintings may have technical flaws, and some of the imagery gets kinda cutesy at times, you just have to realize what radical departures these paintings were from anything else that was being done, and what courage it must have taken to explore such uncharted territory.

As for Wright, what John says about the technical flaws in his houses is very interesting but doesn't detract from their extraordinary freshness & beauty. I haven't seen that many, but I have visited the Robie House & also the Unity Park Temple, both in Chicago, and they are exciting. Fallingwater is out of this world. When I was teaching in West Virginia (from 1990 to 1994), I used to bring classes there every semester, and every time I learned something new, as every docent had her own special little angle to impart. When they did all those restorations, it was closed for quite some time. I don't know if it's been reopened yet, but whenever it is, it's worth taking at least a full day & trekking half-way across Pennsylvania in order to go & experience it.


Chris Rywalt

December 23, 2009, 7:41 AM

Halfway across Pennsylvania? It's more like all the way! Google Maps puts the town near Fallingwater as about six hours from my house (and I'm already a little west of New York City). That's a serious hike. Frank had better be waiting for me with cookies.



December 23, 2009, 11:59 AM

I guess I should have said 2/3 of the way across Pennsylvania, because it was something like 3 hours away from West Virginia, too. Beautiful resort country, though. It's a hilly, wooded area with lots of nice little motels...


Chris Rywalt

December 23, 2009, 12:12 PM

I've only ever been through the middle of Pennsylvania along Route 80. If that's all you have to go by, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the entire state of Pennsylvania exists for no other reason than to keep Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from bumping into each other.



December 23, 2009, 1:38 PM

Piri you & Chris are going different directions in PA. Better synchronize.



December 23, 2009, 1:55 PM

When Piri says in #44: "Kandinsky was really great from about 1908 up until about 1914. Even though the paintings may have technical flaws, and some of the imagery gets kinda cutesy at times, you just have to realize what radical departures these paintings were from anything else that was being done, and what courage it must have taken to explore such uncharted territory." ...

I wonder what "great" means when it hinges on knowing about "radical departures" and "courage" and exploring "uncharted territory". Such issues have to do with art history, not aesthetics.


Chris Rywalt

December 23, 2009, 2:29 PM

I would say, John, that she's speaking metaphorically about studio processes which don't lend themselves to easy description. I've had painters say to me -- some of them from this blog -- "You're not pushing enough" or "You're playing it too safe" and I know exactly what they mean, although there's no way to say how to follow that advice directly.

You probably know it, too, but are taking Piri a little wrong.

There's this great scene in Terminator 2 where the bad Terminator, which can take any shape, in order to get a guy to shut up, rapidly extends one finger into a spike through the guy's head. For years my friends would point at each other, squint, and say "I don't know what muscle to flex."

That's how I feel about painting sometimes. You want to flex some muscle in your head that'll get you through, but there isn't one. So you say stuff like, "What courage it must have taken to explore such uncharted territory" when someone manages it.

I like that Kandinsky page OP pointed to because as you scroll down you can watch as Kandinsky's painting works its way from Impressionst landscapes into abstraction, with a few fallbacks along the way, as it were. It's something of a false view, I'd imagine, but it gives the gist of an artist evolving as he paints and it's neat to see.

I've got to get to the Kandinsky show. Also the Gorky show in Philadelphia. Why do I always confuse Kandinsky and Gorky? Must be the -ky.



December 23, 2009, 2:40 PM

but gorky's 40's pics do have ties to kandinsky.



December 23, 2009, 3:43 PM

John, did you never hear Greenberg talking about "the courage to take risks"? I can't remember whether he deals with this in Homemade Esthetics or not, but there's a letter he sent to Jacob Kainen which I saw when it was on exhibit at the Archives of American Art. Tried to track it down for my book, so I could quote it exactly, but didn't have any luck (twasn't clear whether it was already in the Archives or still in the Kainen house). Anyway, the gist of it (written sometime in the 70s, I believe) was that Kainen should take more risks with his art, because only by so doing could he renew it. Greenberg cited Hofmann and David Smith as artists who were able to renew their art by taking risks with it, and Pollock as an example of an artist who didn't.

That's art history, if you want to call it that, in the sense that Greenberg's writings of the 40s have much more of this kind of attitude. By the 60s and 80s, he was saying art could be good even if it wasn't radical or new, but back in 1947, he could write things like "And it is indeed impermissible that any new painting which transcends the merely pleasing and advances the frontiers of art historically should fail to deal with Miro any more than with Matisse and Picasso." Note the phrase "advances the frontiers of art historically." Or his critique of the American Abstract Artists (also in 1947): "Not one is bold, extravagant, pertinacious or obsesses. Like American poets and critics, they are mortally afraid of making fools of themselves. Politeness covers all." Underlying all of this was the assumption that first-generation abstract expressionism was new, and that it was difficult because it was new, and that people would grow to like it if they would take the time to accustom themselves to it (that's the gist of article he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in 1959). But in the 60s, along came people like Leo Steinberg, who said, no, no, no, ab-ex is old, and the thing that's really new is Johns & Rauschenberg. It was only in the wake of this claim of newness for pop art that Greenberg started saying that newness wasn't important. My position, of course, is that neo-dada like Johns represents a step backward, away from multireferential imagery and back into unireferential imageary, and that abstract art is still the most difficult & the most daring way to go --- but I'm perfectly willing to concede that every abstract painting isn't necessarily good, and that's why I pointed out that even Kandinsky's most daring & courageous paintings may have technical flaws & somewhat cutesy imagery.

Chris, Route 80 goes east-west, crossing Pennsylvania horizontally. Fallingwater is a good deal south of Route 80, close to the border with the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. The school where I was teaching is in the Northern Panhandle of West Virgina, west of Pittsburgh, so we went east on Route 80 to a certain point, then turned south. Coming from New York, you'd be going west of Route 80, then turning south.



December 23, 2009, 5:05 PM

Piri, you are right. Clem took back a lot of that art history / interpretation stuff as he went along. He never quite gave up on the "avant-garde" as being where it's at, though. I have.



December 23, 2009, 5:24 PM

"I wonder what "great" means when it hinges on knowing about "radical departures" and "courage" and exploring "uncharted territory". Such issues have to do with art history, not aesthetics."

At a point Kandinsky's reasons for working seemed to have changed. Jack opined that Kandinsky overthought his work. I think that began happening around 1918, when Kandinsky seemed to have shifted into making work which put forward art 'ideas' ( Excuse me, Opie.), as though he was asking the viewer or other artists to "consider this approach." In his R & D, he emphasized the R to the detriment of the D. And that would seem, as John suggests, to place his later work more within the arena of art history than the arena of aesthetics. I don't think Greenberg, in his encouraging the advancement of 'the frontiers of art historically,' meant for that to be the case.

None of that takes away from what I think was Kandinsky's real contribution, that of a guide.



December 23, 2009, 5:29 PM

The fact that the so-called avant-garde is now very much co-opted by the establishment as soon as it appears is obviously relevant. It also means the whole concept has been distorted or perverted and turned into a commercial tool. Actual artistic merit, of course, is quite beside the point.


Chris Rywalt

December 23, 2009, 5:37 PM

I was just remarking on my experience of the interior of Pennsyltucky. I know Fallingwater is a good deal south of 80 (or anyway I know after having looked it up earlier).

Wright has a house in Staten Island, I believe. I could visit that, probably.



December 23, 2009, 7:03 PM

Chris, the Wright house on Staten Island looks like one of his Usonian houses, prefabs which were meant for people of limited means. I've been in one, and it had all of Wright's usual qualities - arrangement of and use of interior space, bringing the outside in and the inside out, occupation in and sense of completion of exterior space, attention to detail, innovative building methods, and another not uncommon Wright characteristic - a leaky roof.



December 23, 2009, 7:29 PM

"I wonder what "great" means when it hinges on knowing about "radical departures" and "courage" and exploring "uncharted territory". Such issues have to do with art history, not aesthetics."

They have to do with making art, not seeing it.

Tim, art being in the arena of art history rather than the arena of esthetics is not a maningful diustinction. Art can be an any arena you want to put it, and it can put forward ideas and it can be a guide or whatever, but its justfication as art is how good it is. And Kandinsky's art, some of it, was very good.

Clem said a lot of things early on which he disavowed later, mostly avant gardist and Marxist and social relevance things. He later said he wasn't paying enough attention to the art when he did, and he was right. He was "learning in public", as he also said.



December 23, 2009, 7:45 PM


I don't have any reason to believe FLW's Usonian houses were pre-fab, except maybe your assertion they were.

I've been in several, and while they have similarities such as the ones you mention, they also evidenced being custom built. One in particular, was a design commissioned to Wright, and partially completed, when the "owners" had to sell it. The new owners got a local guy (Norm Carver) to finish AND change the stuff they didn't like in Wright's original design. A colleague of mine owned it for a while and didn't like the darkness inside, so when he replaced the roof (if it don't leak, it ain't FLW?) he put in a bunch of skylights.

Wright would no doubt be pissed. But the Usonians were often designed by assistants, I have read, with the big guy supervising. On the other hand, I have read a letter or two he sent to Michigan owners of Usonians, and they seemed quite personal. Certainly, the particular site the house was going on was taken into full consideration.

While the Usonians are for people of limited means compared to the Fallingwaters, they were not particularly cheap, not compared to Levittown.

When I taught art appreciation I covered FLW and Levittown. One year I gave an essay question on which would you rather live in, a Usonian or a Levittown Cape Cod, both restored to their original state. Fully half the students preferred Levittown.



December 23, 2009, 8:28 PM

Opie, what I'm trying to say about Kandinsky's later work is that he seemed more involved in the spirit of innovation of that time in history than he did in simply painting pictures. I really don't sense Kandinsky's later works as being about an aesthetic experience as they are involved with the spirit of artistic adventure of the age. One could say that that is because I don't especially care for the later work, but I think it's because his motive changed somewhere along the way.

"...but its justfication as art is how good it is."

Of course.

John, from my reading about the Usonians, some were prefab, some weren't. In the late 1980s one of them went on tour, and it came to Dallas where it was erected on the campus of the DMA on a plywood foundation. It was really quite a delightful dwelling. In all of them, some of the construction materials (for example the blocks tied together with vertical rods which make up the walls, something not unlike Leggos) were prefab, as I recall. And the Usonians were all custom designed employing different configurations of the blocks, and were usually L-shaped.

"...learning in public." That takes a lot of humility.



December 23, 2009, 8:57 PM

John: "Fully half the students preferred Levittown."

That's interesting, but I'd have wanted to know why. I bet it's because they were far more familiar with and, thus, at ease with the Levittown model than with the Usonian one.


George R

December 23, 2009, 9:14 PM

I really don't sense Kandinsky's later works as being about an aesthetic experience as they are involved with the spirit of artistic adventure of the age.

This is just a personal opinion, I don't think you have any facts to back this statement up.

I spent several hours actually looking at this exhibition and in particular I paid a lot of attention to how the transition between the paintings changed between 1918 to 1924 from expressionist to geometric (the general feel) There was a war, a period when he didn't paint at all, he was moving around, etc, life. Some of the transition is evident in the drawings, but what was clear to me was that his basic vision never really changed, he just sharpened up the forms. The forms in the later paintings are all telegraphed in the earlier works.

Moreover, consider that there was no precedent for his paintings in 1910, hardly any precedent for abstraction in 1920 and a willful desire to explore the abstract style in the 1930's and 1940's. It is easy to look back from 70 years in the future and say "oh, he should have done this or that" like you actually know what you're talking about.

Remarks like "being about the aesthetic experience" are bullshit. Kandinsky and his peers were all trying to make great paintings. They were exploring abstraction without a roadmap and any artist with an ounce of sense would understand that this kind of exploration is not without its false starts and broken paintings.

Each time I've gone back, I've seen something new. I think the later paintings are stronger than he's given credit for.



December 23, 2009, 9:35 PM

Levittown is not without its virtues, given the necessities of mass housing that is privately owned by the not so well off. FLW expected his Usonians to occupy at least an acre, while the Levitt Bros lined them up on one small lot beside another one. But the design of the streets protected children from not just heavy traffic but also cars going fast. The neighborhood block party was born because of the twisty streets that discouraged traffic except by those who had a house to go to or from. They also came complete with a Bendix to go with the outdoor clothes lines, and later, a TV built into the wall leading upstairs to the empty attic.

Maybe what the students liked most, though, was the fact you could close, down payment and all, and move in for about $800 in today's money.

But familiarity had to be part of it too.

And they all knew FLW could not design a watertight roof.



December 23, 2009, 9:51 PM

George R: "This is just a personal opinion."

Well, yes, that is what is. Glad you got that.

"It is easy to look back from 70 years in the future and say "oh, he should have done this or that" like you actually know what you're talking about."

I don't know what that refers to.

George R, I'm glad you are having such a good time with the Kandinsky show, which I've not referred to in any of my comments, and I wish I liked them as much as you do.

And I hope you have a fine Christmas and New year.



December 23, 2009, 10:27 PM

Yeah, well Greenberg's early writings were a lot more effective than his later ones, not least because he spent so much more time advocating & so much less time condemning. I not infrequently find that I have more in common with some of his earlier ideas than with his later ones. But even in his old age he never did give up his idea that to be good, an artist had to have the courage -- and the character -- to explore unknown territory, that an artist had to be willing to take risks. "Safe" with him was never a compliment.


George R

December 23, 2009, 10:30 PM

Tim, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too.

We are looking back from 70 years in the future and we have seen AE and Minimalism and stripes and Mondrian and endless Picasso's, we have 70-80 years of history that Kandinsky and his peers didn't have. This means that what he did as a painter exploring abstraction was groundbreaking, he had very little to use as a reference.

I rarely visit any exhibition I like less than twice because when I see something it becomes part of my subconscious vocabulary as a painter. When I'm working on a painting, where it goes and where I stop, has something to do with subconscious recognition or memory of what it will look like if I take a certain course of action. It isn't really a conscious set of decisions but it has a lot to do with experience and looking at paintings an arms length away. Every painter works within an historical context which allows him certain freedoms and imposes certain restrictions.

Since we already know about Abstract Expressionism we have a different relationship with Kandinsky's paintings than he did. What we might accept, he might have viewed as just a path along the way.



December 23, 2009, 10:30 PM

PS Amost all of of Kandinsky's late work is too mechanical for me, though I did like some of the works on paper from the later 20s, which reminded me of Klee & were done when the two of them were neighbors at the Bauhaus.



December 23, 2009, 10:56 PM

Piri: "Amost all of of Kandinsky's late work is too mechanical for me."

That's a good way of putting it. It's as though the later work was cerebral and, somewhat at least, premeditated. And it's clear that he was heavily influenced by Klee when he was at the Bauhaus.

George R: "This means that what he did as a painter exploring abstraction was groundbreaking, he had very little to use as a reference."

Kandinsky appears to have done his groundbreaking as an explorer rather than as a painter.



December 23, 2009, 11:32 PM

Piri I don't think anyone disagrees that an artist should have courage and take risks. The earlier confusion was about those elements being characteristics of the work rather than of the the artist.



December 24, 2009, 1:09 AM

I've said before that it is not possible to utterly divorce the eperience of art from the historical circumstances of its making, especially once you know something about those circumstances. But I avoid it as much as possible, to the point of not wanting to know the name of the artist when I first look at something. Historical circumstances often muddy rather than clarify the experience of what the work offers (or not). They are not something I ever work at getting involved with.

I remember seeing a smallish steel piece covered with curly queues on a pedestal next to a big ass obvious Di Suvero in Portland and noticing how hard the Di Suvero was getting its butt kicked. So I thought, some local artist enamoured with hammering out pig tails and hanging them everywhere possible made it work, even though it usually doesn't. Then I looked at the label, expecting to see a name I never heard of - David Smith, it said.

Admittedly, Di Sueveros often get their butts kicked, but not knowing the weird little David Smith was a David Smith helped me see that particular case more clearly. I didn't have to wrestle with all I know about David Smith to see what was there, though of course, I could not avoid what I knew about Di Seuvero.


Chris Rywalt

December 24, 2009, 9:35 AM

Picking up the Frank Lloyd Wright thread again, especially the pre-fab part of it: I agree with Bucky Fuller, who was fond of saying "A house is a machine for living." I think of my house mostly in practical terms. How does it help (or hinder) my getting on with the things I have to do in my life? I worry about its aesthetics only about as much as I worry about the aesthetics of my car or a screwdriver.

Levittown in many ways succeeded in being machines for living. Bucky was working around the same time on pre-fab houses for returning veterans but his designs never got made for a number of reasons, partly because he was a big baby at times. He had valid criticisms of Levitt's designs, but Levittown had the benefit of being possible as evidenced by the fact that the houses were actually deployed.



December 24, 2009, 9:47 AM

here are 2 letters and an essay by robert delaunay from 1912 on "the movement of colors". one is written to kandinsky. in this he calls what they are doing "pure painting" and compares it to the impressionists, cezanne and the cubists.

as i mentioned earlier in this thread these two guys seemed to carry the fauvist color into abstraction.



December 24, 2009, 11:21 AM

John, those experiences are pleasurable beyond the satisfaction one gets from the art.

When I was doing the Hofmann show for the Hirshhorn I walked into an exhibit of small AE paintings, ignorant of the contents, and they were all there in miniature, nothing over about 30", so the whole gang was visible in one room.

One of the paintings was a Hofmann, and it was of a type that my hard viewing of Hofmann for the Hirshhorn show had convinced me was a "bad" Hofmann, not up to par, but as I walked around and looked I noticed that the "bad" Hofmann was trouncing the others, even a very nice 1940s de Kooning next to it and a Pollock across from it. So, I thought, what does this say for our ranking of these guys...

This was not the kind of "discovery" you refer to, but nevertheless one of those rewarding experiences that resets your gauges.



December 24, 2009, 2:02 PM

We all like to look at a work of art & try to evaluate it before we look at the label (unless we're tourists at the Met). but I think trying to ignore one's knowledge of how a work was made, or the historical circumstances surrounding its making, is a species of denial. We all bring to our looking years of earlier looking & reading, so why pretend we haven't had all those experiences? If this were 1905, both the diSuvero & the Smith would have looked to you like castoffs from a junk yard, to which no esthetic consideration was due (unless, of course, you were Picasso -- in which case you might have said to yourself, humm, now there's an interesting idea I might want to work up some time).



December 24, 2009, 4:19 PM

Gee Piri, experience looking and experience studying historical circumstances are very different. The looking is great; it is the history I try to put out of my mind.

I grew up in Oklahoma City. I never went to museums as a kid or highschooler. My family didn't care about art, except for paintings of largemouth bass and Mallard ducks. Myself, as a kid, I drew boats, airplanes, largemouths, and falling horses. I never took an art history course during my BA, and only two studio courses, both drawing from objects.

So, it really was 1905 (as you put it) when I walked into a University of Oklahoma museum show of Leon Polk Smith and Larry Poons. I have not forgotten that work because it hit me as better than anything I had ever seen - with no mediation from prior knowledge of anything "non-objective", except a vague awareness that there was such a thing as abstract art. I was about 23 or 24; a noble savage, at best. (Polk Smith is underrated to this day, by the way. So is Poons, as far as that goes. Best LPS I ever saw is at the University of Nebraska.)

Yes, setting aside historical knowledge is "denial", denial of an obstacle. But at the time of first seeing Polk Smith and Poons, I was innocent of just about everything. I had nothing to deny. Knowing nothing didn't stop me at all. What I saw certainly didn't remotely resemble a junk yard, of which I had visited plenty by that time.

I suppose it is experience like this one and at the Portland Museum that form a lot of the basis for my belief that beauty exists as a property in certain external "entities", prior to any person "getting it". I certainly was not conditioned to give a damn about abstract art, much less make distinctions about it. But I did get it, because it was there to get, not because of my being "cultured" or "enlightened".



December 24, 2009, 4:56 PM

Well, John, all I can say is God bless you, but I think you're very atypical. I wish there were more like you! But most people I've had to deal with over the years need preparation before they can relate to abstraction, and with many (maybe most) of them even preparation doesn't help. Nor do I think knowing the historical surroundings to a work of art need be a drawback. Certainly, pedants abound, who will justify their celebration of junk on the grounds of its "historical importance," but in my case, simply knowing when and by whom a work was made has often enhanced my enjoyment. I look at a late Cezanne & not only does it make me quiver with joy, but I can also marvel at the fact that he just kept on getting better & better, the older he got (so there's hope for us all). Knowing something about a work's creator also enables me to know whether I'm seeing him/her at her/his peak, and if necessary making allowances for immaturity or senility. Take the Rouaults at Dillon this past week. Not only were none of them representative of his most successful themes (clowns, kings, Christs & so on), but only a few of the earlier ones showed him making art that could even be described as decent. The later works especially were such bad Rouaults that I found myself wondering whether they were Rouaults at all. Yet if I hadn't had a couple of lectures on Rouault in grad school, I might think this show was as good as he got & accordingly avoid him in future.


Chris Rywalt

December 24, 2009, 5:12 PM

I'm a Rouault novice but even I could tell these were unlikely to be his best. But partly that's because of when he was painting; I'd assume anyone working in the first half of the 20th century had much better work than what I saw at Dillon. However, if he'd been painting in the 1980s, say, I probably wouldn't have expected better.

My experience of neophytes and abstract art is opposite of yours, Piri. I find that completely naive viewers, people who come to art with no real expectations, always immediately and viscerally appreciate abstract art.

The ones that react the way you describe are usually people (I used to be one) who have a received idea of what qualifies as art. I considered myself a cut above the hoi polloi -- I read art books, perused art posters, and so on. What I was lacking was direct experience, because despite growing up in New York City I didn't go to museums much, and when I did I spent all my time in the Egyptian and Medieval wings.

So at the start I thought, as many people do, of Pollock for example, "My kid could do that!" It took some time to be willing to be open to it. I was helped by my wife, who was a complete naif (she still prefaces all her criticisms of my work with, "I don't know anything about art but...") and always completely and totally open to any visual experience. I totally love the way, when everyone else is standing respectfully back, tugging on their chins and looking, she would go right up as close as she could and examine the surface minutely.

A lot of people (again, myself included) have been ruined by easy access to illustration. Side by side in a magazine, Dalí or Rockwell blow away Pollock or Kandinsky. In real life, of course, the latter outshine the former by an order of magnitude.



December 24, 2009, 6:17 PM


There has been in Dallas a collection of very representative works by all the usual AE suspects for as long as I can remember, which I encountered the first time when I was about 11 years old. Then they struck me as imposing and challenging but inscrutable, and though I didn't get any of it, I was curious as to what it was all about and a little frustrated that I couldn't find my way into it. So, for years I just blew it off and became a little defensive about it. I wasn't one who said "My kid could do that," but I wasn't going to give that material any credit if it wasn't going to let me in. I had to pretty much go arduousely through the cavalcade of art-through-the-ages before I was equipped to get it. I confess that it took many years.

But it was not historical context that was my rosetta stone, but learning the language of form, color, line, etc. Getting AE led me to realize that for me a Leonardo, for instance, exists foremost as an arrangement of elements of that language, and that which is depicted in a Leonardo is incidental and oftentimes very much so.

A secondary, but only just secondary, source of 'getting' any art for me is learning an artist's entire career so that I can see a single work not only for itself but in the context of that career and in chronological order. A lot of Monet's water lilies and moreso those paintings he did as an attempt to leave materiality completely were mute to me until I placed them in chronological order within his career, after which I could 'see' them as plain as day without needing the context. I've come to think of some artists' careers as single, discrete works themselves. Cezanne, who, as Piri notes, just kept getting better and better with the passing years, is a very good example of that.


Chris Rywalt

December 24, 2009, 6:30 PM

I just turned 39 and haven't painted any masterpieces yet so I'm holding out hope for turning out like Céanne.

(This would be the spot for a smiley, were I smiley-inclined.)


Chris Rywalt

December 24, 2009, 6:31 PM

Nearby would be a spot for a z. Get the accent right, forget the consonant. Duh.



December 24, 2009, 8:01 PM

My experience was somehwat like John's, except that I was drawing realistic birds and airplanes at around 6 or 7, when most kids were still doing stick figures. Everyone went oooh and aaah but the closest thing to art we had was an old Penner engraving of some building, and the thought that I might become an "artist" was unmentionable.

When I was 11 I saw a reproduction of a Ben Nicholson painting in the roto section of the Herald Tribune and fell for it so strongly I cut it out and put it in my wallet. I have a grad student who saw an Olitski painting in Hartford when he was 8 and told his mother then and there that that was wanted to do when he grew up.

Knowing all about things is fun, but some things are just buried in there and just need the right stimulus to come out.



December 25, 2009, 12:40 AM

I too have heard the stories about the cleaning lady or the pizza delivery man who come into an abstract artist's studio & relate to his or her work immediately, but in my experience people like this don't usually follow up on their abilities by becoming part & parcel of the art scene, or at least, if they do, they don't constitute a significant portion of it. If they were numerous enough to affect public taste in the aggregate, Warhols wouldn't be selling for $47 million, and Jerry Saltz wouldn't be pulling down a handsome salary from New York Magazine for rhapsodizing over the likes of Richter.

I do agree that introducing viewers to context only doesn't help them to learn to relate to abstraction, or for that matter to relate to representational art either. Those who read my column know that I have complained about museum labels that deal only with iconographic or ideological issues, and praised museum labels that offer viewers ideas about the formal values of the work on display. Even at Columbia, where the teachers were (at best) unenthusiastic about Greenberg, they combined formal analyses with iconography, atleast when I was there, and that is the way I always tried to teach myself. But formal values alone, for all but the most committed, are just as dull as iconographic ones or ideological discussions.



December 25, 2009, 1:12 AM

When I was a senior in high school they gave us a series of tests, to guide us in choosing what to study in college. I came out sky high in the ability to visualize 3-d objects and other "space" talents. The counselor, who was a very sharp guy, was amazed at how high, in fact. Said I had the highest raw IQ in the school, but this "space thing" was even higher. (Sorry for the brag, but it helps make the point that is coming.) According to the book that interpreted the results, he said I should go into engineering. I'm not sure art was even in the book, but then, I had never taken an art course in high school anyway.

So I wound up in English and philosophy with a minor in math.

Although I taught art for many years at a university, I often speculated that the preparation I received in undergraduate studies might be better for some undergrads than anything they could get in the art department.



December 25, 2009, 11:37 AM

"But formal values alone, for all but the most committed, are just as dull as iconographic ones or ideological discussions."

That seems like an ill-considered statement, Piri. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "formal values", but the primary contention here has been that when you look at a picture you evaluate it esthetically to get what it has, and that other considerations are auxiliary ones, intreresting, perhaps, but secondary.

I get all kinds of other satisfactions from looking at a painting. I am a sucker for technical proficiency, for example, but when I look for technical proficiency I am limiting my openness to the art (there is plenty of technically proficient bad art). When you look for iconography or ideology or whatever you are not looking at art anymore, but at a document, or something else. It is fun and interesting, but it is something else, another kind of experience or evaluation. This is really basic.

Obviously we all bring our experience to the picture, but this is random and indeterminate. Even the cleaning lady knows what red is, or what a face is, and the fact that she does not suddenly become art-involved is wildly besode the point. The point is (and I have plenty of other examples, with or without the elitist bias) is that she gets it, perhaps more purely and directly than those burdened with all the learning. What she is bringing to the experience is very simply an ability to see art as art.

The art business could learn from this.



December 25, 2009, 11:39 AM

Or, to put in a nutshell, "formal values" are not dull; talking about them can be.



December 25, 2009, 11:54 AM

"The art business could learn from this."

The art business could do a lot of things, beneficial things, but won't, because its priorities are not about those things. No matter how awful the art world gets, it won't do a damn thing about it as long as the money holds up sufficiently. It's not just that the system doesn't care, but that it's so far gone that it can't reform or rectify the mess because it's too heavily invested in it, both materially and psychologically. The potential losses are so great that they would never be assumed willingly. The system will only change significantly if it has no other alternative.



December 25, 2009, 12:23 PM

As for Piri's 'formal values,' I don't believe anyone can be prepared to get what a painting has by sitting in a classroom and hearing formal analyses, etc. And I don't know if one can get what a painting has by evaluation of aesthetics, which suggests intellective process, and sounds kind of like something I find myself doing in the aftermath of 'getting it.'

I've never come across or come up with a good way of putting the experience of 'geting it,' but it has something to do with resonance between the integration of a painting and some kind of parallel integration within the viewer due to some channel having gotten cleared for whatever reason(s), and that/those reasons could be just about anything. For me, it has been, more than anything else, exposure to a point where the essence of a work got past the unconscious predispositions which we all carry while those predispositions 'weren't looking,' while my unconscious guard was down. In other words, Opie, I don't think the cleaning lady's ability to 'see art as art' is automatically there. Something happened somewhere, somehow to unlock it.

And as for 'secondary' material, (iconography, etc.) though I've used that term too, I think 'enhancement' might be a better word, like seasoning on raw food, a more direct and, for me, clarifying part of the experience than 'burdened with all the learning' suggests.



December 25, 2009, 12:42 PM

Tim, you would be wrong. One can learn a lot by sitting in a classroom & hearing a teacher analyze a painting. Most of all, a good teacher produces a student who wants to go out & look at the work itself. This, too, as I see it, is also the purpose of good criticism (Greenberg: "All a critic can really do is POINT":) Labels in museums are located next to actual pictures, and people reading good ones are enabled to see things in a painting that they would otherwise overlook. As to formal values, I mean discussions of color, composition, what makes a painting "work" or not -- all the things that formalists love to discuss, but which can get awfully boring for people who aren't formalists. Greenberg found Panofsky'S iconographically-oriented writing "boring." Yet Richard Martin, editor of Arts, found both Greenberg's late writing and Terry Fenton's contributions to Arts "boring." He only published them because Alvin Demick, the publisher of Arts, made him do so (and even Demick had to be leaned upon by Greenberg occasionally to get these articles into print). As soon as Demick died, Martin stopped asking Greenberg for articles, and also froze out Fenton, Tatransky, and myself out of his magazine (I couldn't even get him on the telephone). I don't know what luck Bannard had after Demick died, beyond the publication of his review of the first two volumes of Greenberg's collected writings, as I kind of lost interest in the magazine after that, but if he got published, it would have been a tribute to his ability to sidestep formal discussions & focus on more colorful aspects of the art world.



December 25, 2009, 12:53 PM

I think what you guys are dwelling on is talking about art, not looking at it.

Richard Martin published my essays because what I wrote got people stirred up, not for their analytic excellence. In those days I was busy damning the art world, and he got a kick out of that.



December 25, 2009, 1:06 PM

Tim, I may not know precisely what you mean by "automatically there", but my experience tells me that being able to see art is indeed an inborn talent, just as is art-making talent. I have new students every semester, and each one of them has "taste", more more less, and when it is really more I know it right away.

I recall Bill Cahill, governor of NJ in the '70s, for example, former FBI man, son of an immigrant Irish butcher, no background in art whatsoever, and when I took him around to a a friend's art collection I was astonished at his sharp eye and his take on art of every kind. His judgement was immediate and his reasons, when he gave them, were as good as any. He liked my painting, too, which of course made him doubly perspicacious!



December 25, 2009, 1:11 PM

Piri: "Tim, you would be wrong."

I can't figure out what you wrote after that which has much to do with what I wrote or which tells how I 'would be wrong.'

"Most of all, a good teacher produces a student who wants to go out & look at the work itself."

Of course that's the ideal, but in reality, even with a good teacher that is FAR more the exception than the rule. And any number of things can produce an interest in looking into things.

"Labels in museums are located next to actual pictures, and people reading good ones are enabled to see things in a painting that they would otherwise overlook."

That's the point I made about 'enhancements' v. 'all the learning.'

And no, Opie, talking about art is not what I'm 'dwelling on.' I'm talking about the experience of 'getting it,' of 'seeing,' if you will. I had the impression that's what the conversation is about.



December 25, 2009, 1:11 PM

There you go again, opie ... outing yourself.



December 25, 2009, 1:24 PM

Opie, by 'automatically there,' I don't say the ability to 'see' (if I may use that shorthand) has to be installed. It's, as you say, in all of us. I've had 'Cahill' experiences. What I'm saying is that something occurred that brought that inateness into conscious play. And, as I said, that 'something' could've been anything, and probably was not 'learning' as that word is being used in this exchange.

And, though I've had 'Cahill' experiences, my experience tells me the 'Cahills' are the exceptions which prove the rule that art-seeing and art-making, though inate, have to be cultivated in order to amount to anything, or, in cases like my own, in order even to exist on a conscious level.



December 25, 2009, 1:30 PM

Another way of putting it is that the ability art-seeing cannot be pursued. It comes when the recipient is prepared (however and whatever that prepararion may have been) to receive what that which is seen has for the viewer.


Chris Rywalt

December 25, 2009, 1:36 PM

Isn't it Christmas Day where you people are? Go open some gifts or something!



December 25, 2009, 1:41 PM

Tim, the sentence which me made respond that you were wrong is as follows, "As for Piri's 'formal value,' I don't believe anyone can be prepared to get what a painting has by sitting in a classroom and hearing formal analyses, etc." My response was essentiallly that you can learn a lot by sitting in a classroom. I confess my somewhat irate tone may have obscured what I was saying, and apoogize for that. (Handing out half of my life savings to the people who work in my building this morning as Christmas bonuses has me in a sour mood.) I certainly don't endorse Martin's views, but I think it's important for any group of friends (with professional ambitions) to be able to see themselves as others see them, and to realize that what seems self-sufficient to them may not to other people.

Opie, did Martin continue to publish Bannnard's pieces after Demick died (beyond the review of Greenberg's first 2 volumes)? And did Jim Cahill become an art collector, or otherwise a member of the art scene?



December 25, 2009, 1:47 PM

I agree with OP that seeing, "getting" or truly appreciating art as art is an innate talent, like a talent for chess, dancing or what have you. It is, of course, subject to development and refinement, but if it's not there to begin with, no amount of "coaching" will compensate for the basic deficiency. Education, exposure and so forth can impart a certain level or degree of competence, to put it that way, and certainly a veneer of familiarity and navigational ability, but that's never the same as the real thing.

I won't bore the regulars with my own history in that regard, as they've heard it before, but suffice it to say that if I hadn't been naturally inclined towards art and hadn't pursued that inclination entirely on my own initiative, there was absolutely no reason for me to have bothered with the stuff at all.



December 25, 2009, 1:54 PM

And Chris, you are a tool of capitalist consumerism. In my opinion, only kids should get Christmas presents. I expect Piri would agree with me.


Chris Rywalt

December 25, 2009, 2:12 PM

Kids and wives should get Christmas presents. Especially wives. The kids can't make your life (too) miserable when they don't get what they want.



December 25, 2009, 2:20 PM

No, not wives, either. It should be seen as unbecoming for adults to expect Christmas presents. Kids only.


Chris Rywalt

December 25, 2009, 2:46 PM

I don't have much use for Christmas gifts (or birthday gifts, for that matter) but I'm outvoted around here. And you're uninvited.



December 25, 2009, 3:13 PM

Chris, one cannot open presents all day unless one has very rich & generous family & friends. With kids it is usually over & done in the morning.

John I sort of outed myself but I think Piri completed the job. I use the alias out of habit at this point.

Piri the answer to your question is that I believe they stopped publishing the essays after Martin left to go to FIT. And no, Cahill was a politician, not an art person. I think that was my point.

Tim, well, yes, I quess the potential or inclination for "getting" art has to be "in" the person, and the art triggers it, if that is what you are saying.

This discussion has wandered a bit, but the central theme was indeed about "getting it" but in particular what "getting it" consists of, and what contributes to it, which is an interesting topic which I assume can only be maintained by people who "get it" in the first place. It would be beyond anyone who has no real familiarity with art. Which is OK by me.



December 25, 2009, 3:20 PM

Piri: " can learn a lot by sitting in a classroom."

I really don't find any challenge to that anywhere in this thread. Thanks for the apology, no offense taken.



December 25, 2009, 3:37 PM

Opie: "I quess the potential or inclination for "getting" art has to be "in" the person, and the art triggers it, if that is what you are saying."

Yes, that's what I'm saying, except that I wouldn't say that an art work has to be the trigger that brings the potential or inclination into play. The trigger could be any of a lot of things, experiences, occurrances...



December 25, 2009, 8:28 PM

I agree with Opie & with others who say that the ability to respond to the purely visual properties of art is an aptitude that you either have or haven't, though I'd qualify that by saying it's not a yes or no proposition, but rather a question of degree.

When I was an adolescent, I too was given aptitude tests. This was done at an outfit called (if I remember correctly) the Johnson O'Connor Research Institute. I scored high on "structural visualization," which was the capacity to visualize things in 3 dimensions, and low on finger dexterity, so I was told that I should become either a sculptor, interior decorator, architect or engineer.

Obviously, in the 50s, engineering was not a very practical solution for a female, and interior decorating seemed frivolous to me. I didn't think I had the talent to become a great sculptor, and I didn't think the world had much use for second-rate sculptors. I did consider architecture (though even that would have been pushing the envelope for a woman in the 50s). I had an uncle who was an architect, and I put in a month of summer vacation before twelfth grade as an unpaid draftsman in his office, but after drawing a number of bathrooms with multiple, multiple erasures I realized that I wasn't neat enough to become an architect (nowadays, of course, bathrooms are drawn by CAD software, but I suspect you still need to be pretty neat and precise to become an architect).

Point of all this is that these tests were scored not yes or no but on a scale of let us say 1 to 100. I was like 90 or so in structural visualization, and in the 20s or 30s on finger dexterity, but maybe in the 70s on the verbal side, and I figured the world had more use for second-rate writers than artists -- even if I couldn't write poetry or novels I could still write advertising copy or do pr --- anyway, as you all know, I became a writer.

My finger dexterity is still terrible. My typing is full of corrections (thank God for computers -- I don't know how I survived without them). But even scoring in the 70s on verbal aptitudes, I've done all right as a writer, and even scoring in the 20s in finger dexterity, I do manage to grind out a good deal of copy. Two points here I'm trying to make -- first, that all these tests measuring aptitudes aren't yes or no, you either have it or you don't, but rather you may have it to such & such a degree. Second, that even if you don't have it to a major degree, if you study it & work at it you may achieve more than you would have achieved if you hadn't attempted it in the first place, or to generalize here, people with a little bit of aptitude for the purely visual may learn to appreciate more than you would think.

Culturally speaking, there have been periods when more people at least paid lip service to good abstraction & were encouraged to do so by the schools & the media (I am thinking of the 50s & even the early 60s here). This made it possible for good abstract painters to succeed more easily than they can now. During such periods, the level of discussion is more helpful than it is now & people who may not score high on whatever aptitude is required to appreciate the purely visual may still be helped by education (in & out of the classroom) to get more out of looking at art than they do now.


George R

December 25, 2009, 9:18 PM

Piri #105.9 This made it possible for good abstract painters to succeed more easily than they can now. During such periods, the level of discussion is more helpful than it is now

I respectfully disagree, interest in abstraction is somewhat cyclical and it appears that the present interest is increasing. While the interest or attention to painting may wax and wane there are a lot of good abstract painters showing in the galleries here in NYC now.

That said, I think the problem is different than being supposed here. The term "abstract" lies at the opposite end of some scale from "representational" to "non objective," and us useful primarily as a descriptor for general classification.

However, the basic tenets of "non objective" abstraction were more or less laid out by the last part of the 20th century. In my opinion, painting is neither "abstract" or "representational" but a combination of both simultaneously and what makes a painting "abstract" is just it's pictorial space. If one can acceot this distinction then there's a lot to talk about.



December 25, 2009, 10:11 PM

"what makes a painting 'abstract' is just it's pictorial space."

I know I am asking fo trouble by doing so, but I have to ask, what does that mean?



December 25, 2009, 10:25 PM

Really, OP, you're hopeless. And they say Tiger Woods has impulse-control issues. Next to you I look like Mr. Spock, at least lately.



December 25, 2009, 11:31 PM

I know, Jack. Sackcloth & ashes time



December 26, 2009, 1:57 AM

I like Piri's distinction between "uni" and "multi" referential. I might wiggle a little more and say "narrow" and "wide", or something like that, but the idea is the same. "Representational" means keeping the range of referents in the images very low - Something in a picture might look like a lot of oranges I've seen, but it doesn't look at all like an apple, and so on. In the end it refers to some specific object that I've seen before.

However, when George brought up "pictorial space" I immediately thought of Turner. In some way or another he manages to present space in certain pictures as "representational" despite the many many ways it "should" read as non-objective, or multi referential, or whatever you might wish to call a picture of something you have never seen. That is, it is pictorial space like nothing I've ever seen "in reality", yet the way he puts it across, it is more representational than not. Darryl Hughto, on the other hand, has done some swirly pictures where the "pictorial space" is handled much differently, though it also does not resemble anything I've seen "in reality". In the case of Hughto, the result was abstract. So there are instances where the way space inside the picture frame is handled makes more of a difference than whether or not there are referents, and how broadly they range.

About whether or not it's hard to get recognition, I think it is hard for anyone, trendy and fashionable, illustrative, or abstract - simply because there is just too much art being made to sort it out properly. Not that it was ever easy (there is no such thing as a score card for art) - but now it is damn near impossible. A symptom of this, I think, is that living and just recently dead artists are selling for more than bona fide, time tested, blue chip masters. That's as sure a sign of trouble in the art system as an inverted yield curve is that there's trouble in the financial world.



December 26, 2009, 8:15 AM

Anything that has form has "referents" if you want to see them. It is a matter of agreement more than anything else. Seeing the Madonna in the cheese sandwich, for example.

Your particular comparison of the art merket to the financial market is a new twist. Very interesting.



December 26, 2009, 10:17 AM

in terms of prices, the same thing that john mentions is happening in art is happening with designer furniture or decorative arts.

on another side, you would think that people with great art or great furniture would have both and be good decorators, but that is often not the case.



December 26, 2009, 11:56 AM

The curve flattening in the art/design market is a consequence of a turn to fashion rather than to quality.

This does not mean that the recent stuff is necessarily worse than the older stuff, it means that purchasing is being done by manipulated taste. The manipulators naturally go for the recent because there is more of it and opinion is not settled on it, so it can be more easily fashion-driven.

The irony, of course, is that part of the rationale is that "someday this will be a classic", while simultaneously the actual classics go unsold.

as an example, and sadly enough, in reference to remarks above about a time when abstraction was better "understood", it is my conviction that exactly this type of mechanism was at work back in the heyday of AE.

I knew a man in the town I used to live in who in the early 60s amassed a huge collection of second-rate AE work. He didn't have a clue about what was good, but he sure could talk up a storm about what was new and exciting and on the edge and all that. I have often wondered what happend to all those paintings.



December 26, 2009, 12:34 PM

People who've read even the introduction to my book know that I posit 3 types of representation, not 2. There is abstract (or multireferential), there is representational (or uni-referential) & then there is semi-abstract, where the referents are more than uni but not with such a wide range of possibilities as pure abstraction (Analytic Cubism being the example of semi-abstract that I most commonly cite, though obviously many others fall into the same category). Pure abstraction (e. g. Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko, etc.) is usually what I mean by abstract. It's what some people say "non-objective" (I don't like that term, considering it a form of denial, and Greenberg didn't like it either, tbough I don't know his reasoning on the matter. All I know is tht he once told me he preferred "abstract" to "non-objective").

Re second-rate AE, Opie, your friend with the big collection of it should be doing very well with it, as Manhattan galleries are showing and selling a lot of such work from the 50s these days. One of the first & maybe the first to get into it was Gary Snyder, and he explained his reasoning to me one day in his gallery (when I questioned the presence of so much second-rate AE on his walls). He said that there were a lot of collectors out there who really wanted a Pollock or a de Kooning, but didn't want to pay Pollock or de Kooning prices. Such people were perfectly satisfied to be able to pick up, say, a Joan Mitchell or a Norman Bluhm, for half the price. Snyder (in addition to representing John Griefen) now makes a specialty of second-string colorfield painters (Downing, Mehring, etc.) which leads me to hope that prices for Noland & Louis are now getting high enough so that some collectors want imitations in this category instead of the genuine article.



December 26, 2009, 12:37 PM

The irony, of course, is that part of the rationale is that "someday this will be a classic", while simultaneously the actual classics go unsold.

Marvelous observation, opie. If what the buyer picked does indeed turn out to be a classic, the price seems like it will go down, compared to the new fashions of the future, if not in actual dollars. Maybe down in both. A good eye does not look likely to pay off.

What you say about AE in its heyday of acceptance suggests that paying attention to "avant-garde-ness" was the fundamental mistake, like when a defensive lineman goes for the fake hand off, while the ball is taken somewhere else.



December 26, 2009, 12:57 PM

Interesting comments, Piri. It suggests that collectors with bucks are looking for a certain "type" of art first, then a "name" second. Too bad for them that the second rate Pollocks and de Koonings (of which there are plenty) are riding the coattails of their great stuff, price wise. I've always thought the sale of Blue Poles to Australia was an example of dumping the second string where it would not be seen so much, but would still satisfy the "need for a name".

Sorry that I made your distinction between "Uni" and "multi" seem so disjunctive. Turner, certain ones anyway, still seems like an unusual case to me. I would not call him semi-abstract, though that would be convenient enough.

Even though I've been familiar with your classification idea for years (and used it when teaching because it proved very helpful for students who begged to "understand"), I had a revelation of sorts when I read through it in your book. As in, when I paint, especially when starting something, it feels to me like there is little or nothing to hang onto. Yet, as I read your words, I began to imagine the proverbial intelligent alien, who might look at what I was doing and say, this guy is attempting to jam half of everything he ever saw into what he is doing and getting confused by the image overload.



December 26, 2009, 1:21 PM

John,I'm so glad my theory has proved helpful to you in teaching situations. That's what it was designed for. When it comes to your own painting, I think the best thing to do is probably forget about it altogether & ignore the intelligent alien. Unless you are deliberately trying to create an image that resembles something in the external world, you should just focus on creating something that looks absolutely nothing like anything you've ever seen! From what I've seen, I believe this can be done, too --- just as I found that,in the wake of discovering the theory, I became hypersensitized to the purely pictorial aspects of the art that I was looking at in museums.



December 26, 2009, 7:03 PM

Piri I'm sure my collector friend is long gone - that was years ago. However, Gary Snyder may indeed have picked up some of the art involved because his mother was a dealer in the same town and he was too for a while, though 20-some years later.

John it was certainly avant-gardeness, which was really gaining traction on the late 50s and early 60s, though hardly the numbing death march it has become now. But whether avante-gardness or not, the basic fault is in using the ears rather than the eyes.

Of course seeing has become virtually extinct by now. Fashion has gone way beyond simple avant-garde into a totally trend-driven lemming-like market which will pay millions for objects for unfathomable reasons.

Why would anyone pay $5 million (or $100, for that matter) for a Richard Prince Nurse painting? I can't even begin to get at the reasons, if there are any. Are there any? I couldn't even make a guess, much less explain it. Maybe something to do with the greater fools theory. There seems to be a lot of them.



December 26, 2009, 9:11 PM

The sad thing (or one sad thing) is that, if people were willing (and obviously able) to go with their eyes, they could get excellent work for relatively modest prices--and I mean lots of people, not just the rich. The whole thing, while it may be explainable, is essentially irrational (except, perhaps, if it's reduced to a purely commercial or investment matter).


George R

December 26, 2009, 11:41 PM

Financial stuff first. Any asset that gets too far away from its expected mean price is signaling some future positive event or overvaluation. In the case of artworks the expected return on 'blue chip art' is about the same as the S&P 500, or 7% to 12% compounded annually. Lower priced artworks from emerging artists will appreciate at the high end of the scale, blue chips at the lower end.

In the recent bubble prices were off the map, the Warhol "Liz" that Hugh Grant sold for $24M in 2006 had appreciated at a 68% compounded annual rate. If this appreciation continued the painting would have been worth a billion dollars in 2015-16 -- obviously not likely. The Warhol Dollar painting appreciated at a 23% compounded annual rate and sold at about 700% above its expected value. In these cases the paintings probably won't be resold soon and all things being equal will be fairly valued in about 20-25 years.

Why would anyone pay $5 million (or $100, for that matter) for a Richard Prince Nurse painting?

Simply because Richard Prince is now considered a "blue chip" artist. Many collectors are purchasing art as a store of value, something which 'should' appreciate modestly over time. To invest five million in lower valued artworks has more risk, higher commission costs and greater physical overhead. David Geffen is the master at this type of art investing.



December 26, 2009, 11:50 PM

"Simply because Richard Prince is now considered a 'blue chip' artist"

The painting is expensive because he is an expensive artist?

I think we have to do better than that!


George R

December 26, 2009, 11:57 PM

John, I view "pictorial space" or the "painting space" as the overall logic which organizes everything in a painting. It's visual and takes its clues from our own visual interaction with our physical world. Most current abstraction is stuck relying on visual ideas based in the last century. I was just looking to see if anyone else was thinking about this, obviously not.


George R

December 26, 2009, 11:59 PM

No Opie it's just that. I know it's hard to take but that IS the reason. FWIW, I don't like Richard Prince either.



December 27, 2009, 8:07 AM

I view "pictorial space" or the "painting space" as the overall logic which organizes everything in a painting. It's visual and takes its clues from our own visual interaction with our physical world.

I can buy into this, George. But "our own visual interaction with our physical world" extends back not to just the past century, but the one before that, and before that, and so on.

When you say "current abstraction is stuck relying on visual ideas based in the last century", I pause and think: this seems pejorative but that was just 10 years ago, what's the big deal about that? The history of art is replete with artists who mine the past, not just of their own tradition, but any tradition that can be of use. In any case, the way we organize paintings is a continuum for the most part. Pollock organized like an early cubist, tossing in some Turner and some American Indian sand painting, and even the way images are strung out in the caves of Lascaux, whether he saw them in the flesh or not. The cubists went back to Byzantine mosaics, with perhaps a dash of African, not to mention plundering Cezanne, who was from the century prior to them.

"Stuck" does not seem like the right word to use. The ambitious artists uses whatever works. Richard Prince, whom neither of us likes, is "stuck" with the avant-garde of 100 years ago. I think the issue, and he exemplifies it well, is what you use from the past and more importantly how you use it, not the act of mining the past, per se.

What seems really dead about the late 19th and all of the 20th century is avant-gardism. I'm not sure it was ever essential to the best work from that era. With all due respect to the artists (and critics) who jabbered about "rebellion" and "cutting edge", what really mattered was the best work of those who went backwards to recover what had been lost, label be damned. The thing that made them seem avant-garde was there were so few of them, and even fewer who were wildly successful with that strategy. An objective intelligent alien might more accurately see them as rear-guard, because the past is what inspired them, not the contemporaneous "with it" stuff of the various academies that have come and gone.

Now I'll qualify. Really really good work can seem "cutting edge" just because it is so rare. The locus of causality starts with being really good, then the sense of cutting edge can follow. When this causal chain is reversed, and cutting edge is used in an attempt to cause goodness, it flops, as it flops in Richard Prince. The more "cutting edge" dominates, the less likely it is to work.

Although Clem thought less and less of it as he aged, "Avant-garde and Kitsch" was a great essay (except its beside the point conclusion). Its greatness was because it pointed to the region of western culture that was up to something real, not because of the labels it applied. Like I've said earlier, he associated the avant-garde with the real stuff, to some extent or another, his whole life. He resorted to contriving a difference between the real and fake avant-garde as the "numbing" effect opie speaks of began to overwhelm. Too bad he didn't abandon the term, though his contrivance almost amounted to that.

In any case I am in agreement with what seems to be George's underlying MO - that certain ideas from the past outlive their usefulness and become instead obstacles. "Avant-gardeness" is certainly a prime candidate for relegation to the part of history that is a trash heap of curiosities that were once inspirational but no longer work.



December 27, 2009, 9:14 AM

It is not "hard to take" George. It's just not a reason. It is circular.


George R

December 27, 2009, 10:52 AM

Opie, I wasn't addressing how RP got to the $5M mark, only that once he is considered "blue chip" he's part of an investment class and people buy and sell the art in a different manner. They are counting on the fact that pricing will remain circular - stable - which is what you want in a "store of value"

A rise in prices of certain artists seemed to occur in the 2001-2004 period after Mei Moses analysis of the art market as an investment became more widely accepted. Financial advisors were suggesting that fine art was viable in an investment portfolio (I have a Merrill article somewhere stating this) From the dates, you can see this occurred right after the internet bubble broke and for this and a number of other reasons the art market saw an unprecedented influx of capital. The existing blue chip prices were pushed upwards into the millions, the mid-tier into six figures, and for two years emerging artists were in demand to fill the lower price tier. All that's over now but the pricing shifts seem to have stuck. There is a lot of historical precedent for this and after the deaths of the current "modern masters" prices will trade differently, less influenced by fashion and celebrity.


George R

December 27, 2009, 11:54 AM

First off lets leave RP out of it, I didn't bring him up and it deflects the discussion away from the topic. Second, the idea of the avant guard is now problematic because of the increased number of artists and mediums.

I said pictorial space is visual and takes its clues from our own visual interaction with our physical world.

You said but "our own visual interaction with our physical world" extends back not to just the past century, but the one before that, and before that, and so on.
We are not on the same page here. I am talking about our physical world literally, our day to day encounter with 'reality' not just art. It has to do with how we see what we see.

At one level we are 'pre-wired' to make certain visual distinctions, vertical horizontal, foreground background, faces etc. These abilities operate at a low level in the brain processing of visual information but almost everything else is learned conditioning.

We see more than shapes. Above the subliminal, everything we see causes an avalanche of of associative and psychological classification on the path to recognition. Moreover, our consciousness invokes the awareness of a holistic spatial structure to contain all the forms we perceive. Look through some opening (doorway etc) at an object partly occluded by the doorway's frame, now imagine this object overlapping the door frame -- in the real world this doesn't happen unless something has run amok -- but it can happen in a painting.

This is a point of perceptual logic, one mapped onto the 'real world.' A painting can contain any perceptual logic it wants, since it's real world "logic" is a flat object. Alternative spatial logics will always refer partially back to the real world as a starting point (by habit) but if the spatial metric is continuous the viewer may be willing to accept the "painting space" and this becomes a transformative experience.

Now thinking again of our day to day physical world, our visual reality encountered walking down the street or anyplace not enclosed entirely by nature. What we see is a discontinuous visual reality. One where a billboard may present a head twenty feet high -- we know it's a billboard but we also accept a partial transformation into the billboard space. This is not new, one can find pictures of the streets of Paris, or NYC 100 years ago with the same clutter of advertising images.

Because painting followed a certain path over the last 100 years cumulating in a fairly clear definition of what the parameters of "abstract painting" could be we have a tendency to look at the history of visual space in painting, one defined over the last century (for abstraction) and ignore the other implications of the spatial discontinuities of our visual life in the modern world.

What difference does this make? For me it eliminates most of the distinctions I can make between what's 'abstract' and what's not. If I can take the step of logic and see it all holistically then a synthesis of both becomes a practical expressive solution for painting going forward.



December 27, 2009, 12:00 PM

I guess you can say what you want, George, but the interesting question is why something with nothing discernable whatsoever of any kind to recommend it will sell for a million bucks.

As for

"I view 'pictorial space' or the 'painting space' as the overall logic which organizes everything in a painting. It's visual and takes its clues from our own visual interaction with our physical

which seems to appeal to John, for some unaccountable reason, space is not logic and it cannot organize anything and saying it is "visual" and "takes its clues from the visual world" is about on a par with deducing that Prince is a "blue chip artist". I think we have to dig a little harder to come up with something discussable.

As for "avant=gardeness", in art ideas are dead as soon as they are recognized. Any explicit measure of worth results in inferior art tailored to it.


George R

December 27, 2009, 12:23 PM

but the interesting question is why something with nothing discernable whatsoever of any kind to recommend it will sell for a million bucks.

Anyone who knows the answer to this wouldn't be posting here.



December 27, 2009, 1:17 PM

The implication being that they are making millions and wouldn't waste their time.

The thing is, I don't think those people know either. They are merely taking advantage of invisible forces.



December 27, 2009, 2:25 PM

George, I didn't read you carefully enough because I associated "organizing everything in a painting" with the "clues" found in "visual interaction with our physical world". Clearly the first has a tradition, the second not necessarily, though I assumed it did because you connected it rhetorically to the first and then slammed abstraction for being stuck on old hat visual ideas, as if there was a connection in reality.

So I should have said that it was the way we organize painting that "extends back". But when you say "everything else is learned conditioning" you are not that far from the way I originally framed my response, though you are restricting the discussion to everyday perception.

Your use of the term "logic" did not read as a substitute for "space" but rather as part of your description of "painting space". It seemed metaphorical, not literal, inasmuch as the "logic" that organizes rational discussion is much different than whatever organizes a painting. Could have used quotes around the rod, I think, but it seemed clear enough without them.


George R

December 27, 2009, 2:28 PM

Umm, "they" are the artists here. I think the collectors know what they are doing.



December 27, 2009, 2:31 PM

Yes everybody, be sure and put quote marks around any "rod", any time you use one.



December 27, 2009, 2:31 PM

OP, let it go; it's not as if you don't know better. It's not worth your time.


Chris Rywalt

December 27, 2009, 4:33 PM

OP, you've seen the same phenomenon as Richard Prince discussed right here on this blog in entirely different terms: Think of Franklin's investment in gold. He is proud of the fact -- and you with him, if I remember correctly -- that he bought gold significantly more cheaply than it's currently trading.

The facts on the ground offer no reason for the rise in gold prices. In fact gold should be getting cheaper and cheaper. The technology for mining gold has resulted in vastly increased yields. Almost a hundred years ago Bucky Fuller predicted that gold would become worth no more than its best physical applications, as a fantastic electrical conductor and reflective surface (he imagined gold parabolic dishes used for beaming radio signals around). It's not as if gold is actually scarce any more.

However, gold prices obviously rose. What Franklin did was invest in the credulity and irrational fear of others as the economy weakened.

How different is a buyer of Richard Prince's Nurse paintings? Clearly a market of credulity has already been built up. A lump of gold is approximately as useful to Franklin (or any of us who aren't goldsmiths) as a work by Richard Prince. So what's the difference? Neither gold nor art are inherently valuable beyond what people are willing to pay for them.


George R

December 27, 2009, 5:03 PM

Chris, You are wrong about gold. The "easy" gold has already been mined and "advanced technology" is more or less nonsense when it comes to mining. Most gold cost's in the vicinity of $300-$400 per ounce to mine now, less if it's a byproduct of copper, more from the deep SA mines.

The most significant market for gold is as an investment. Over the years the gold price has fluctuated but it does seem to maintain its purchasing power. The recent rise in gold prices has been primarily linked to the decline in the US dollar since inflation is fairly tame at the moment. In my opinion the dollar is in the process of making a significant long term bottom which will remove that factor from the gold price. The remaining factor will continue to be a reaction to the anticipation of future inflation. FWIW, I think gold has further to go on the upside but will finish 2010 about where it is now.

Investor stupidity makes prices extend above and below some expected reasonable value. Smart investors exploit this peculiarity by doing the opposite.

Investors in the precious metals are not hampered by cultural fashions which can have a dramatic affect on art prices. It is too soon to tell if RP's paintings will continue to hold their value as an investment. Certainly there is considerable precedent for them decreasing in value just as may of the "blue chip" artists in other cycles declined in value. None the less, the risk in owning the work of "blue chip" artists is a lot less than owning the work of emerging artists which on average historically declines in value over time.



December 27, 2009, 5:04 PM

The price of gold rose for sensible reasons. The value of the dollar is getting decimated by the bailout measures. The price of gold in dollars is reflecting that.



December 27, 2009, 5:37 PM

Saying that gold has no "real value", in the Fuller sense (as undergrads we used to automatically reverse his initials) brings up the question of what "real" means in context. Just because the price is not based in use in manufacture or such like does not mean that it is not somehow substantial.

Gold is universally accepted as a monetary "floor" that becomes more valuable as fiat money becomes less valuable. This stable recognition is just as fundamental a human use as any element of manufacture.



December 27, 2009, 5:47 PM

The Wealth of Nations devotes a really interesting chapter to why metals are preferable to other materials for currency.


George R

December 27, 2009, 6:16 PM

John, Sorry that people are choking on my use of the word 'logic.' I think the semblance of illusion is one of the most compelling aspects of painting. Representational illusion might exploit perspective which is a mapping of three dimensions onto a two dimensional plane. What I mean by 'logic' is perceptual coherence of the mapping method, it makes some sense to the viewer because they can link it back to their own perceptual experience. When it doesn't the viewer becomes confused, or looks for another reasonable organizational scheme in order to decode what they are looking at.

Pictorial space does not have to utilize any representational referent. Whatever organizational methods are employed they must present a coherent viewpoint to the viewer -- this is what I mean by logical, the pictorial space makes sense.

You say and then slammed abstraction for being stuck on old hat visual ideas, as if there was a connection in reality.

I think you misread what I said. What I was indicating was during the 20th century we developed a good definition of what the parameters of "abstract painting" could be. This doesn't mean that abstraction has exhausted itself or that I said it was old hat. What I am suggesting is that one possible evolution of painting at this point in history is going to be a synthesis of what was discovered in the preceding century, including abstraction. That our contemporary environment provides considerable stimulus and inspiration for such a synthesis (especially if one lives in an urban area)


George R

December 27, 2009, 6:30 PM

One caveat about gold. I've traded gold stocks since 1998 so I am quite familiar with the various arguments one way or the other for gold going up. The last time I calculated it out gold was "fairly valued" at around $900 an ounce. That said I think it's going higher at least for the first half of 2010. After that I would be cautious if it becomes apparent that there is a clear reason for gold going higher OR if it moves higher in $70-$105 a day moves.



December 27, 2009, 7:40 PM

When you say space is logic, I choke.



Chris Rywalt

December 27, 2009, 10:54 PM

It seems to me -- I'll get to Adam Smith later, when I have some reading time -- it seems to me that the value of gold is similar to the value of Richard Prince, in that both values are essentially fictional. People like them, for whatever reason, and that makes them valuable. With both a lot of what people like about them is received -- it's historical. I can easily imagine why gold would be of immense value in the Middle Ages, for example, when it would be exceedingly rare, non-tarnishing, easily worked into beautiful ornaments, and clearly distinguishable (sometimes by eye) from imitations.

I cannot imagine why gold would be valuable today except because people want it. It's valuable because it's valuable. We use precious metals for our currency base (sort of, historically, ultimately) but we could just as easily use art, or meteorites, or purple dye from snails, or lapis lazuli.

The argument in favor of precious metals is similar to the argument for Richard Prince, adding George's caveat that Richard Prince may suddenly drop, while gold probably won't. Gold won't, though, again for historical reasons: People have always valued gold, while ugly publicity stunt paintings haven't been around that long.

Still, in the end, the value of gold is, like the value of blue-chip art (and unlike the value of blue-chip stocks), circular. (Theoretically stocks are valuable because there's a company that actually does something to earn money -- although the past few years have proven that to be mostly notional also.)

In the end, any object is valuable -- monetarily -- to the extent that you believe other people think it's valuable. In other words it's all one big opinion poll. The difference between success and failure lies in gauging everyone else accurately.

Aside from that is the value we place on art as its audience, which is a separate, sometimes unrelated value. What confuses people like us -- I'm speaking for Jack and OP and Franklin, I presume -- is how the two become so distant.

Although I should note that the market isn't completely off base, since Darby Bannard, for example, still sells paintings well out of most people's price range. John too, I bet. So it's not hopeless.


Chris Rywalt

December 27, 2009, 10:59 PM

By the way, George, regarding the mining of gold: I admit to not having read anything on this in over a decade, but last time I did I saw that gold mining had become ridiculously efficient and productive. Likewise diamond mining: Diamond prices are artificially inflated by De Beers. At this point diamonds can be made in a lab relatively cheaply, in quantity, and in a quality unseen in "real" diamonds, but to keep from upsetting De Beers, the companies in the field have promised only to sell colored stones and/or not call them "diamonds".

I'd tend to defer to your expertise, but your grasp of facts in the past has been, shall we say, somewhat weak. I suppose you could dig up some sources.


Chris Rywalt

December 27, 2009, 11:03 PM

Wikipedia has a lovely graph showing that gold mining was at an all-time high in 2001 or so, a high which is absolutely ridiculous. At that level of production the price of gold is, purely from a supply and demand view, insane. Unless demand for gold has gone up exponentially since 1900; I suggest this is unlikely due to most of the world (all?) being off the gold standard by now.


George R

December 27, 2009, 11:49 PM

A little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

Raw tonnage is misleading.


George R

December 27, 2009, 11:55 PM

BTW, the all time coolest gold mining tale.

The ancient Romans mined gold in Spain (mentioned in the wiki) but like this.

The gold was inside a low mountain riddled with caves but with a large lake at the higher altitudes.

So the Romans planded the flood plain below with a plant that has beads of sticky sap on its leaves.

The Romans then diverted water from the lake forcing it to flood the caves (hydraulic mining) finally washing down to the flood plain

The gold flake which was in suspension in the water stuck to the sap on the plant leaves.

The Romans then harvested the plants, set fire to them and melted the gold out!



December 28, 2009, 8:33 AM

Opie (#142),

I think you are misreading George. In #140 he clarified what he said more simply earlier by saying 'logic' is perceptual coherence of the mapping method. It is clear to me he is talking about a property of certain spaces, not making space the equivalent of logic. Even then, he is not using logic in the primary sense, but rather adapting it to the circumstances of painting.

George (#126), Thanks for the info on financial advisers starting to push art as an investment after the crash of 00-01. I never knew that, and it explains how the crazy art market got crazier, for reasons similar to real estate going crazy after the same crash, when money that had been going into stocks went into it instead. That the real estate idea went bad and continues southward suggests that art as investment might have some more downside too, if and when investment motivated money moves elsewhere in search of returns in a deflationary environment. (By deflationary I mean one in which net worth is being reduced, not necessarily one in which the cost of living is going down, though that seems like it ought to follow at some point. First time home buyers certainly spend less than their counterparts did a few years ago.)



December 28, 2009, 11:52 AM

around that same time there were also art "mutual" type funds, but complications among other things hindered sales. not sure if they are still active. but art was becoming a more accepted option to diversify a portfolio for investment advisors. the art fund does seem pretty ridiculous though.



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