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This Week In Clembashing: David Pagel

Post #1807 • March 26, 2018, 10:25 AM • 3 Comments

Welcome to the first and probably not weekly issue of This Week In Clembashing, in which we take the blithering of some ideology-addled art-worlder as an opportunity to examine a text that Clement Greenberg actually wrote.

David Pagel begins his March 24 review of Mark Bradford at Hauser & Wirth with this mystifying claim:

Long before homelessness became the issue it is today, the critic Clement Greenberg coined the term “homeless representation” to put down paintings that were not abstract enough.

You already know that something is wrong with this because it implies that Greenberg thought that quality and abstraction correlated, and did so by degrees. Wrong, and wrong again.

The champion of Abstract Expressionism (and Post-painterly Abstraction) looked down on art that made viewers feel as if they were in the presence of a world that did not exist — except in the mind’s eye. To Greenberg (1909-94), that was the stuff of science fiction; it had no place in painting.

This is just out in left field. Greenberg never said anything like it, and said quite a few things contrary to it. I can't even guess what passage of Greenberg's he's mangling in order to get this notion out of it.

At Hauser & Wirth in downtown Los Angeles, “Mark Bradford: New Works” turns Greenberg’s idea of homeless representation inside out. Rather than being a pitfall to painting, the imaginative leaps that homeless representation triggers give Bradford’s art its kick and resonance.

Lines run every which way. Some form networks that resemble a drone view of streets and buildings — before, during and after missile attacks. Other patterns recall the visual glitches of old-fashioned TVs, their antennas intermittently picking up signals and their screens appearing to be possessed by shape-shifting demons.

I have taught abstract drawing as a foundation-level college art class, and one of the first things we have to talk about is why “I see a kitty!” is not an interesting remark to make about an abstraction. I like a simile as much as the next art critic but these are banal observations to commit to the Los Angeles Times.

Think of his work as homeless abstraction, a kind of painting all about displacement and the seismic shifts society is undergoing.

And now the monkey is not only holding the wrench the wrong way, he's hitting himself with it.

“Homeless representation” hails from “After Abstract Expressionism,” which first appeared in 1962 in Art International and was reprinted several times in later anthologies, including the four-volume O'Brian collection. As you would expect, it is quite a bit more interesting than that bland reduction by Pagel. Greenberg:

Later, as the 1950's wore on, a good deal in Abstract Expressionist painting began fairly to cry out for a more coherent illusion of three-dimensional space, and to the extent that it can be created only through the tangible representation of three-dimensional objects. It was most logical therefore that when painterly abstraction in New York finally crystallized into a set manner, it did so in a series of outspokenly representational works, namely de Kooning's “Women” pictures of 1952-1955. This manner as returned to abstract art by de Kooning himself and the countless artists he has influenced, I call “homeless representation.”

He defines it upon coinage:

I mean by this a plastic and descriptive painterliness that is applied to abstract ends, but which continues to suggest representational ones.

And then he immediately clarifies that this designation is not a value judgment.

In itself, “homeless representation” is neither good nor bad, and maybe some of the best results of Abstract Expressionism in the past were got by flirting with representation. Badness becomes endemic to a manner only when it hardens into mannerism.

You may dispute the ensuing appraisals—I do—but I don't doubt that he arrived at them by way of aesthetic response.

This is just what happened to “homeless representation” in the mid-1950's, in de Kooning's art, in Guston's, in the post-1954 art of Kline, and in that of their many imitators. It is on the basis therefore of its actual results that I find fault with “homeless representation,” not because of any parti pris; it's because what were merely its logical contradictions have turned into artistic ones too.

This business about painting not being abstract enough is such a shame because “After Abstract Expressionism” has Greenberg exploring his thoughts about Richard Diebenkorn. From later in the essay:

For our Johns and Diebenkorn, Europe has its Tàpies and Sugai to show. This comparison may be unfair to Diebenkorn, whose case is so exemplary that it is worth pausing over. His development so far is what one might say the development of Abstract Expressionism as a whole should have been. Earlier on he was the only abstract painter, as far as I know, to do something substantially independent with de Kooning's touch (and it makes no difference that he did it with the help of Rothko's design). More recently, he has let the logic of that touch carry him back (with Matisse's help) to representational art, and one might say that this consistency of logic is partly responsible for his becoming at least as good a representational as he was an abstract painter. That de Kooning's touch remains as unmistakable as before in his art does not diminish the success of this change. Uneven densities of paint, as produced by smearing, swiping, scrubbing, and scumbling, had in de Kooning's own hands created gradations of light and dark like those of conventional shading; though these were kept from actually modeling back into deep space by the declamatory abruptness with which they were juxtaposed, deep space is, nevertheless, increasingly suggested in almost everything de Kooning has done lately.

For all of the vaunted weakness of Greenberg's styling, charged by Robert Hughes and others, I challenge you to find anything in Pagel's review as good as that “declamatory abruptness.”

By letting this suggestion become a forthright statement, Diebenkorn (along with another Californian, Elmer Bischoff) has, in effect, found a home for de Kooning's touch where it can fulfill itself more truthfully, though modestly, than it has been able to do so far in de Kooning's own art.

Let that sink in.

There are painters in New York, too, who have begun to put de Kooning's manner to the uses of outright representational art, but until now their success has been less consistent or less significant.

Greenberg continues to describe Jasper Johns as another exemplary case. Exploring how would necessitate an overview of a discussion of Analytical and Synthetic Cubism from earlier in the essay, so we'll save that for another time, but it does conclude with this:

I do not mean to imply that the effectiveness of Johns' painting depends on a device. There is far more to it than that; otherwise I would not get the kind of pleasure from it that I do. But the fact that as much of his art can be explained as has been explained here without the exertion of any particular powers of insight would indicate a certain narrowness. Johns sings the swan song of “homeless representation,” and like most swan songs, it carries only a limited distance.

Which brings us back to Bradford. As far as I can tell, Pagel hasn't really understood this “homeless representation” idea. It's not the mere presence of imagery, making work that's “not abstract enough.” It's the introduction of representational devices for the purpose of creating three-dimensionality. The fact that it has no distinct imagery to attach to is the whole point of calling it “homeless.” Is this not obvious? Apparently not.

But to whatever extent he gets it, Pagel enjoys the aspect of homeless representation in Bradford's work, in supposed defiance of Greenberg. But Greenberg described the phenomenon as an enjoyable thing when he coined the term for it. Not only enjoyable, but fruitful, and potentially regenerative. It can be all these things and still be limited in certain respects.

And that's Bradford for you in a nutshell. Bradford's paintings never fail to look serious, and they never fail to look minor in spite of it. They are Jean Fautrier by way of Mimmo Rotella, scaled up with the help of assistants to meet the demands of today's cavernous museum spaces. Again, the issue is the hardening of a manner into a mannerism. I defy you to say that no such thing is going on in Bradford.

Postscript

The essay that gave me the idea for This Week In Clembashing was not Pagel's, but another by John Michael Colón for The Brooklyn Rail from a few weeks ago.

What’s left of abstraction? Not long ago we were told—most famously by some rambling and snobbish essays of Clement Greenberg’s—that only art which consciously pursued formal innovation could save culture from drowning in mass-market kitsch. As movement gave way to movement, Greenberg insisted, art moved toward increasing abstraction. Artists responded to the past by shucking off more and more unnecessary baggage—figuration, perspective, even shape—in the pursuit of ever purer explorations of the medium itself.

But soon artists began to turn away from this supposed trajectory, rejecting first the abstract ideal and then painting as the master-discipline entirely for a new succession of forms: conceptualism, performance, multimedia installations. Whether one considers these bold innovations or gimmicks by which to impress the art market, they had nothing to do with abstraction as such, with that ruthless subtractive process of whittling images down to their roots which so obsessed critics like Greenberg that they put it at the center of their story of what modern art even is.

Which is to say that This Week In Clembashing is not going to deal with every scribbler who needs his nose wiped.

Comment

1.

Dana Gordon

March 26, 2018, 12:03 PM

Clement Greenberg has been the ultimate bête noire, the Oedipal father who must be killed and replaced by oneself, for so many art critics, art historians, art commissars, and even naive artists for more than fifty years now. Clembashing has long been the sine qua non for an art writing career in academia. Such religious, automatic, knee-jerk defensiveness makes you wonder: Do you think maybe he hit on some deep, inescapable truths? He really loved and understood art and its depth and beauty. Maybe that's the sin.

2.

John Link

March 26, 2018, 12:39 PM

Brilliant, Franklin.

When you write, "It can be all these things and still be limited in certain respects," you bring up a word - limited - that few obsessed with being Number One seem to understand. For potential to become real, it must undergo limitation, period. That is, in order for Matisse's The Dessert: Harmony in Red to become an actual picture, red had to be chosen over all the other colors he could have used. For Hopper's Nighthawks to be as good as it is, it had to limit itself from engaging long list of possibilities.

Limitation is the core of any style, good, bad, or otherwise. As Greenberg observed, it is only when the limitations necessary to make style visible migrate from manner to mannerism that they "limit" the work in the negative sense. Even then, the result isn't necessarily unworthy. Dante Rossetti anyone?

3.

Franklin

March 26, 2018, 3:36 PM

Another point about limitations: It's easy to understand why a move instigated by de Kooning would represent a retreat for de Kooning but an advance for Diebenkorn, who was eighteen years his junior. In 1955, to pick a date, de Kooning would have been 51 and Diebenkorn 33. They were in wildly different spots on their respective trajectories when de Kooning reached back into representation in order to blow apart the limitations of the all-over compositions he had been making in the late '40s. The thing is, those all-over paintings were really good. Whereas Diebenkorn in the late '40s (he was practically a kid) was painting at about the level of Nicolas de Staël. Diebenkorn's move into figuration was hugely enabling even as de Kooning's was a little disabling.

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