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The Art World's Real Conservatives

Post #1763 • October 16, 2015, 2:25 PM

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On Tuesday at the press event for Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 at the ICA Boston, associate curator Ruth Erickson made an astonishing remark. Josef Albers, she said, was not really a modernist. His understanding of the relative nature of color—that blue looks different next to orange than next to gray, for instance, and therefore blue has a contingent rather than an absolute nature—makes him more of a postmodernist. If this claim were remotely true, Goethe, who likewise observed that color had relative and psychological properties, would also be a postmodernist. There's nothing non- or anti-modernist about that observation. I spent the rest of Erickson's guided tour through the exhibition suspecting that everything else she said was potentially just as warped.

On a hunch, when I got home I looked up Greenberg in the index of the exhibition catalogue, written by Helen Molesworth, formerly of the ICA and now chief curator at MOCA in Los Angeles. Sure enough:

The relativity of our experience of color has philosophical and ethical implications, as well. If our experience of a piece of colored paper can change so demonstrably, then what sure footing do we have when we appeal to common-sense truths like color? How are we to proceed in the wake of such profound relativity? Albers was emphatic in his own work that [all emphases in original—F.] there is no final solution in form; thus form demands unending performance and invites constant consideration—visually as well as verbally. The statement is worthy of unpacking. Albers insisted that every form has meaning, by which I understand him to mean that there is no content or subject matter without form. That form—color, line, shape—is a given, as if in a geometry proof. But unlike a given in a mathematical proof, these forms are subject to perception—what Albers called experience. If form so intimately relates to perception, then its meanings and/or effects are capable of great transformations through context. Meaning and experience are then also relative. Their relativity mandates the ethical position of unending performance and constant consideration. If there can be no final solution, a turn of phrase that Albers could hardly have been immune to, then there can be no absolute version of truth, because our perceptual apparatus does not allow it. The task of training students to see, to open eyes, as Albers often said, was to facilitate their critical awareness of the made qualities of the world around them, to make them self-aware of their own experiences to better prepare them for the democratic work of making considered choices.

Albers's interest in perception could be seen in his own work, as well as in his class assignments. Elaine de Kooning felt that Albers was a master of optical illusion, because he would try to make a ruled line look bent or a flat color seem modeled. He did so in part to test repeatedly the act of making against the act of perceiving. This was exactly what was at stake in the matière studies, for which students were tasked with making one material look like another, such as making a cigarette ash resemble a rock. In this regard, Albers was not a staunch modernist, at least not in the vein of Clement Greenberg, who was in the midst of formulating a modernism of pure opticality. Rather Albers insisted on the relativity of color, the perceptual instability of human experience, and the need for a constant performance or testing of innumerable variables.

His Variant works, and certainly, his lifelong project Homage to the Square put him at the crux of the shift from modernism (with its fidelity to medium, its shoring up of grand narratives, its belief in verifiable truths) to postmodernism (with its embrace of interdisciplinarity, its sense of the irresolvable and the definitively unfinished, and its eschewing of moral truths in favor of situational ethics). I'm not at all sure that Albers would have agreed with—let alone relished—his role in this shift, which is perhaps the dilemma of any extraordinary practitioner who straddles, by virtue of generational accident and world-transforming events, movements within Kunstwollen.

Greenberg wrote about Albers. Here he is in The Nation, February 19, 1949, from the four-volume compilation by John O'Brian.

The strictly rectilinear art of Josef Albers, which was given a large-scale presentation in early February at the Egan and Janis galleries, provides an ever-recurring frustration. As that part of his work shown at Janis's made clear, he is a sensuous, even original colorist, but there seems to be no relation whatsoever between this and his composition, which adheres to the dogma of the straight line. Consequently his pictures are more successful when they do not go beyond black and white, and that section of the exhibition which was installed at Egan's, confined exclusively to pictures in black, gray, and white, became much the more important one—though this may also have been because it included a good deal of Albers's earlier as well as recent work. At Janis's, the color, however interesting as pure chromatic effect, simply interfered with anything that may have been generated by the drawing. Alas, Albers must be accounted another victim of Bauhaus modernism, with its doctrinairism, its inability to rise above merely decorative motifs. It is a shame, for an original gift is present in this case that is much superior to all that. One has to regret that Albers has so rarely allowed the warmth and true plastic feeling we see in his color to dissolve the ruled rectangles in which all these potential virtues are imprisoned.

Molesworth's conclusion above, based on the fact that a color looks different next to different colors, that all experience is relative, is the kind of philosophical insight that a college-sophomore pothead might come up with. Anyone who has been through a Bauhaus-influenced foundation program at an art school (which is just about all of them) will recognize the purpose of assignments such as the matière studies is not to demonstrate subjective idealism to the student, but to point out how observation and imagination depend on one another. Albers was, after all, training people to create things. Unending performance isn't merely an ethical position, it's how you push your art forward.

Leaving that aside, notice that everything that supposedly differentiates Albers's modernism from Greenberg's were traits that Greenberg wished he had seen more of in Albers's work. His color, from the standpoint of pure opticality, he deemed effective. It was lack of experimentation in the rest of the content that left him unsatisfied, Albers's insufficient testing of innumerable variables.

Do other genres suffer this kind of malpractice? Do film historians wonder counterfactually what Pauline Kael would have made of Last Tango in Paris, ignore what she actually wrote about the movie, draw inferences that maximally impugn the author, and commit their dismissals to the pages of sixty-five-dollar monographs?

Greenberg appears again in the chapter on the haptic:

There is no such thing as a Black Mountain aesthetic, no dominant trend that unifies the artistic production of this small community. The work is too heterogeneous for that, and its practitioners were too idiosyncratic and individualistic to produce anything as old-fashioned as a style or, more aptly, a school. This state of affairs is a frustrating one for art historians, whose disciplinary task is to assemble and order, so better to explain how and why art objects come into being, how they operate, and what they mean. In the game of narrating the art of the mid-twentieth century one idea garnered a lot of traction: that of critic Clement Greenberg, who fortuitously visited Black Mountain in the summer of 1950, with his then lover, the painter Helen Frankenthaler. Two years earlier, he had written the still-important article The Crisis of the Easel Picture, in which he summed up the effect of the emergent ethos of Abstract Expressionism: Just as Schoenberg makes every element, every voice and note in the composition of equal importance—different but equivalent—so these painters render every element, every part of the canvas equivalent, and they likewise weave the work of art into a tight mesh whose principle of formal unity is contained recapitulated in each thread, so that we find the essence of the whole work in any one of its parts. Even though Greenberg is specifically referring to the eruption of Abstract Expressionist painting in New York, his description applies equally well to the kind of thinking that pervaded the experiments at Black Mountain. Indeed, later in the essay, when he writes, it corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other, he sounds more like John Cage or Josef Albers than the grandfather of painterly formalism. But Greenberg was unable to sustain this openness and, in reviewing Willem de Kooning's first one-person in New York for the Nation that same year, he wrote: de Kooning's insistence on a smooth, thin surface is concomitant of desire for purity, for an art that makes demands only on the optical imagination.

Again, emphasis Molesworth's. It's clear even from the excerpt that Greenberg was describing de Kooning's priorities, not making a normative statement about thin surfaces in general. She then adds, with neither the slightest justification nor further exposition (emphasis mine),

Perhaps, in the end, Greenberg's argument held so much sway because art that relies heavily on the optical can be better reproduced in photographic images. But the majority of art at Black mountain might be called extraoptical. And if any description can encompass the whole of the Black Mountain aesthetic, it might be the haptic, as opposed to the purely optical.

A consideration of the meaning of haptic ensues, complete with the stereotypical postmodernist maneuver of throwing the dictionary definition under the bus in favor of a personal and convoluted coinage. But what a galling kiss-off of the merit of the man's ideas, that they were influential merely because flatness reproduced better. That essay is in the same volume of the O'Brian compilation as the aforementioned note about Albers, and the sentences that precede the one excerpted by Molesworth read:

For de Kooning black becomes a color—not the indifferent schema of drawing, but a hue with all the resonance, ambiguity, and variability of the prismatic scale. Spread smoothly in heavy somatic shapes on an uncrowded canvas, this black identifies the physical picture plane with an emphasis other painters achieve only by clotted pigment.

This is reminiscent of what Elaine de Kooning said above about Albers's ability to make a flat color seem modeled, and it's obvious that Greenberg's interest here is not in means, flatness per se, but final effect, thickness or flatness aside—effective color, and an emphasis upon physical objecthood that was just as important to the thick painters, as well as most of the extraoptical, haptic artists at Black Mountain. That de Kooning achieved it with thin paints is remarkable, but nowhere does Greenberg suggest that in a prescriptive way that implies a lack of openness. In fact, two paragraphs later he praises the unresolved quality of de Kooning's work as a mark of artistic seriousness.

Emotion that demands singular, original expression tends to be censored out by a really great facility, for facility has a stubbornness of its own and is loath to abandon easy satisfactions. The indeterminateness or ambiguity that characterizes some of de Kooning's pictures is caused, I believe, by his effort to suppress his facility. There is a deliberate renunciation of will in so far as it makes itself felt as skill, and there is also a refusal to work with ideas that are too clear. But at the same time this demands a considerable exertion of the will in a different context and a heightening of consciousness so that the artist will know when he is being truly spontaneous and when he is working only mechanically.

In other words, this essay, in which he allegedly no longer sounds like Albers or Cage, sounds that way because Molesworth elided the parts that sound like Albers and Cage. These borders between approaches hardly existed until figures like Molesworth gouged them into what was a continuous and permeable landscape. Someone less motivated to malign Greenberg could have easily situated him in the ideas in play at Black Mountain. In some respects his writings better exemplify them than Albers's paintings.

Much of the celebrated art of the present either implicitly or explicitly stands against bourgeois values, understood in the Marxist sense. Even something as cynical and bogus as the works of Koons allegedly critique the banality of consumerism. But once institutionalized, that becomes a conservative phenomenon. The main function of institutions is to perpetuate themselves and protect certain kinds of human activity. That goes for the project of openness as much as anything else. Openness is a high virtue in postmodernist thought but institutionalized openness is an oxymoron.

What appears as the killing or dying of art may in fact be an exhausted stalemate between mutually antagonistic conservatisms. There's Molesworth's (though hardly only Molesworth's) Institutional Postmodernism. There's Stylistic Conservatism, revivals of the classical tradition that can often be quite moving but don't offer much promise of innovation, and an artist, as George Carlin once said, has an obligation to be headed somewhere. There's Protest Art, which despite its trappings is profoundly backwards-looking. Ben Davis's rush to embrace Emma Sulkowicz found him relating her then one-item oeuvre back to the activist consciousness-raising of feminism in the 1960s and '70s and the art of, among others, Ana Mendieta. It's the kind of thing you do when you're desperate for new membership, and the critical community—Davis included—averted their eyes from her in unison when she produced her disappointing follow-up. Protest Art's staunchest proponents self-identify as one or another species of socialist, but hail from white suburbia and similar sanctums of privilege. And even modernism, as I have written, is a kind of radical conservatism.

But among these and possible others, the real conservatives are the ones traveling with Institutional Postmodernism. It's not just that they operate in fortresses of starchitecture, where they throw galas for people who manage hedge funds that have hour-to-hour valuation movements greater than most of our lifetime earnings. That I don't have a problem with, though I do wonder how they reconcile it philosophically. It's the anxiety about the institution's enemies. Institutional Postmodernism is always at war with Clement Greenberg in the way that Oceania is always at war with Eastasia. It's a bogus exercise for rallying adherents around the institutionalized virtues. Openness, for instance. The shoring up of grand narratives is not particular to or even characteristic of modernism, it's something that Helen Molesworth perpetrates in broad daylight. This desire to establish an official narrative amenable to institutional values is deeply conservative. The willingness to sacrifice honesty in the process is Rovian.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Institutional Postmodernism is an empire now, and it covets the territory of neighboring modernisms.

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