Robert Hughes, 1938-2012
Post #1565 • August 8, 2012, 11:29 AM • 4 Comments
It's worth recalling how bad art writing had become by the mid-nineties. Here's Jeff Rian prefacing an interview with Peter Halley for Flash Art in 1995:
The sociological purpose of flowcharts is to map and model behavior, whether animal or mechanical. Curiously, one of art’s synthetic purposes is to abstract some element of reality in order to see it analogically, if more resonantly, also using some kind of pattern, model, or visual gestalt which gives form to idea. Captions should be omitted in art, however, as Halley omitted them, although viewers are not apprised of this; some may even think they’re actually his. But his intention in stenciling such charts onto walls was to suggest a way to read his paintings.
Where the found flowcharts are meant to be ironic, the cartoons are only cartoonlike in substance, because they tell a tale of destruction, nuclear in type. In a sequence of nine vividly colored silkscreens, titled "Exploding Cell," a toxic gas seeps through a conduit, into a concrete-looking chamber; the gas then explodes, solidifies, and becomes forever inert. In the upper-left corner of each is a small arabesque logo, a TV-like Halley-ism, whose purpose is to keep it "pop" and therefore familiar.
It was in an atmosphere that accepted this sort of flaccid prattling as professional-grade work that I first encountered Robert Hughes's Nothing If Not Critical, an anthology that included a brilliant takedown of Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled "Requiem for a Featherweight." "A West Coast dealer is said to have maintained Basquiat in a Los Angeles studio for the few weeks he needed to crank out a show," Hughes wrote, "thrusting pot, coocaine, and heroin through the pantry door whenever the nostrils of genius began to twitch." The paragraph that followed shortly after changed my life:
Basquiat's career appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, the racist idea of the black as naïf or rhythmic innocent, and of the black artist as "instinctual," outside mainstream culture and therefore not to be judged by it: a wild pet for the recently cultivated white. Second, a fetish about the infallible freshness of youth, blooming amid the clubs of the downtown scene. Third, an obsession with novelty—the husk of what used to be called the avant-garde, now serving only the need for new ephemeral models each year to stoke the market. Fourth, the slide of art criticism into promotion, and of art into fashion. Fifth, art investment mania, which abolished the time for reflection on a hot artist's actual merits—never were critics and collectors more scared of missing the bus than in the early eighties. And sixth, the audience's goggling appetite for self-destructive talent: Pollock, Montgomery Clift. All this gunk rolled into a sticky ball around Basquiat's tiny talent and produced a reputation.
It was as if a stallion had flicked his tail and scattered a cloud of flies. I realized for the first time that art criticism didn't have to be a prissy display of conspicuous jargon usage. It could read as well as the best nonfiction.
It has been noted many times on this blog, though not by me, that Hughes was better when he didn't like something than when he did. It's hard to dispute this, but I have come to realize that you can't ask for art criticism to be any better than the art it is describing. The best contemporary artists he has to write about in Nothing If Not Critical are Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Susan Rothenberg. As worthy as they are, I feel that they're not as good as Peter Halley is bad. When Hughes got to Halley in 1989, he put him in the corner like a schoolboy.
The essays of Peter Halley, whose curiously intense yet visually inert paintings of square "cells" connected by linear "conduits" are literal illustrations of [Baudrillardian] "circulation," take Baudrillard's ideas about simulation and hyperrealization so much on faith that he scarcely questions the dubious axiom that the model, in our perception of the world, has completely supplanted the real. ... Through Baudrillard, Halley gets on to one fact—that a great deal of painting, sculpture, and architecture in today's mannerist visual culture seems like a weakly motivated or merely cynical rerun of older prototypes—and inflates it into a blanket denial of all authenticity. Finita la commedia: all that is left is death, cloning, freezing, the zero degree of culture. This has a nice eschatological ring, but eschatology is a cultural construct too and this kind blandly skirts the possibility that art may have enough affirmative power to transcend such levels of sophomoric despair.
To Robert Hughes, who punched hard and above the belt. May he rest in peace.