Monday, December 17, 2018

One of Brassai’s most famous photographs of 1930s Paris is of Violette Morris, later a Nazi collaborator and torturer for the Gestapo. Sometimes the demimonde understands, like Liebling’s wounded pimp, sometimes not. But Americans like to live their dreams. Edward Mendelson in 1981, reviewing After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde, by Christopher Butler.
The basic claim made by every avant-garde movement – that its artists offer real innovations, that they surpass the limits accepted by their predecessors – is central to Butler’s advocacy. ‘My plan,’ he writes, ‘has been to argue that in the 1950s radically new conventions for the language of art were developed by writers, musicians and painters who wished to break away from modernism.’ This argument faces difficulties at the start, since the avant-garde has been proclaiming its radical newness longer than anyone can remember. The most time-honoured convention of the manifesto-writers is innovation: the formula for newness is handed down unchanged from generation to generation. Butler quotes an artist who wants nothing to do with ‘all the structures, values, feelings, of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.’ This happens to be Frank Judd speaking in the late 1960s, but all that distinguishes it from Futurist manifestos of fifty years before is its tone of lumpen disgruntlement. Allen Ginsberg, quoted in one of Butler’s epigraphs, says: ‘there is nothing to be learned from history any more. We’re in science fiction now.’ This remark, differing only in vocabulary from claims made early in this century for the new machine age, is proof in itself that Ginsberg’s ignorance of history does not exempt him from repeating it.
A more vivid proof, not mentioned by Butler, may be found in Ginsberg’s recent echoes of the totalitarian apologetics offered by some of the Modernists of the 1920s and 1930s. Ginsberg has placed his spiritual life in the care of a Tibetan guru (one consciously avoided by the Dalai Lama), the autocrat of a spiritual retreat and poetry workshop near Boulder, Colorado. Among the guru’s activities are punching recalcitrant visiting faculty in the face and having them stripped naked by his goon squad. Ginsberg defends the guru’s methods as an “experiment in monarchy”, and insists that he must not be judged by the standards of lesser mortals.[i]
“Frank” Judd is Donald, and the quote is from, “Questions to Stella and Judd”, an interview from 1966.[ii] Read in full it’s as dated as the fragment Mendelson includes. But in 2015 it was reposted on the webpage of the magazine where it first appeared, and called prescient, because the same debates are repeating, in an even smaller subculture.[iii] Mendelson is wrong though to say that  Ginsberg, Judd and Stella didn’t know history, at least as fact. They were still trying to escape it; they each saw ideologies and made their own in response, another schism in the church, another splinter group. But art succeeds if it transcends intent, if it’s more interesting than the chatter that surrounds it, and if the chatter and the art aren’t in conflict, generally speaking it’s the art that makes the chatter interesting, unless the chatter is interesting on its own. The interview is worth reading to understand how much has changed, from the 20s to the 60s and to now.
GLASER: Why do you want to avoid compositional effects? 
JUDD: Well, those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain. When Vasarely has optical effects within the squares, they’re never enough, and he has to have at least three or four squares, slanted, tilted inside each other, and all arranged. That is about five times more composition and juggling than he needs. 
GLASER: It s too busy? 
JUDD: It is in terms of somebody like Larry Poons. Vasarely’s composition has the effect of order and quality that traditional European painting had, which I find pretty objectionable.... The objection is not that Vasarely’s busy, but that in his multiplicity there’s a certain structure that has qualities I don’t like. 
GLASER: What qualities?

JUDD: The qualities of European art so far. They’re innumerable and complex, but the main way of saying it is that they’re linked up with a philosophy—rationalism, rationalistic philosophy.

GLASER: Descartes?

JUDD: Yes. 
GLASER: And you mean to say that your work is apart from rationalism?

JUDD: Yes. All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic that is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world’s like. 
GLASER: Discredited by whom? By empiricists?

JUDD: Scientists, both philosophers and scientists.

GLASER: What is the alternative to a rationalistic system in your method? It’s often said that your work is preconceived, that you plan it out before you do it. Isn’t that a rationalistic method?

JUDD: Not necessarily. That’s much smaller. When you think it out as you work on it, or you think it out beforehand, it’s a much smaller problem than the nature of the work. What you want to express is a much bigger thing than how you may go at it. Larry Poons works out the dots somewhat as he goes along; he figures out a scheme beforehand and also makes changes as he goes along. Obviously I can’t make many changes, though I do what I can when I get stuck.

GLASER: In other words, you might be referring to an antirationalist position before you actually start making the work of art.

JUDD: I’m making it for a quality that I think is interesting and more or less true. And the quality involved in Vasarely’s kind of composition isn’t true to me.

GLASER: Could you be specific about how your own work reflects an antirationalistic point of view?

JUDD: The parts are unrelational.

GLASER: If there’s nothing to relate, then you can’t be rational about it because it’s just there?
JUDD: Yes.

GLASER: Then it’s almost an abdication of logical thinking. 
JUDD: I don’t have anything against using some sort of logic. That’s simple. But when you start relating parts, in the first place, you’re assuming you have a vague whole—the rectangle of the canvas— and definite parts, which is all screwed up, because you should have a definite whole and maybe no parts, or very few. The parts are always more important than the whole. 
GLASER: And you want the whole to be more important than the parts?

JUDD: Yes. The whole’s it. The big problem is to maintain the sense of the whole thing. 
GLASER: Isn’t it that there’s no gestation, that there’s just an idea?

JUDD: I do think about it, I’ll change it if I can. I just want it to exist as a whole thing. And that’s not especially unusual. Painting’s been going toward that for a long time. A lot of people, like Oldenburg for instance, have a “whole” effect to their work. 

Judd is talking about moral imperatives, founded in theological argument. He wants to see things, not arrangements, facts, not chatter. A woman I knew, who’d gone to grad school at Yale, and imbibed all the theory and whose own work was “transgressive’ had always associated Judd with the “Enlightenment values” and art for bank lobbies. And then she met him, and realized that nominally an atheist he was a still a self-punishing Calvinist. She’d seen kink behind the Puritan morality and now she loved the work. 
Michael Fried was right to say that the focus on objects, qua objects, as things which displace air or water and which change in our perceptions as we move around them brings us to the point of theater. 
…I want to make a claim that I cannot hope to prove or substantiate but that I believe nevertheless to be true: viz., that theatre and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting (or modernist painting and sculpture), but with art as such - and to the extent that the different arts can be described as modernist, with modernist sensibility as such. This claim can be broken down into three propositions or theses: 
1. The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre. …
2. Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre. …
3. The concepts of quality and value-and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself-are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual artsWhat lies between the arts is theatre
Remember Panofsky’s description of the Florentine intermedio… “where the conclusion of Plato’s Republic appeared on the stage”, and the nobleman who wrote “that it was very beautiful but nobody could understand what it was all about.” “Performance art” in the 16th century and the 20thdeveloped for the same reasons: the need to reconcile mandated idealism, eternal, deathless, with growing worldliness, economic and intellectual, and engagement with life as experienced in time.  Performance art was a way for artists raised on idealism to come to terms with relativism, using what they knew to make formalist abstract forms of narrative. Fried was right to say that it was “the negation of art“ as he defined it. Theater is the death of art only for those who associate art and philosophy, with “truth” and not fiction. Minimalism maintained Modernist idealism about itself, as materialism, but not about experience. Fried quotes Greenberg on its beginnings.
Objecthood has also become an issue for modernist sculpture. This is true despite the fact that sculpture, being three-dimensional, resembles both ordinary objects and literalist work in a way that painting does not. Almost ten years ago Clement Greenberg summed up what he saw as the emergence of a new sculptural 'style,' whose master is undoubtedly David Smith, in the following terms: 
To render substance entirely optical, and form, whether pictorial, sculptural, or architectural, as an integral part of ambient space - this brings anti-illusionism full circle. Instead of the illusion of things, we are not offered the illusion of modalities: namely, that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage. 
Fried tries to pull back from the implications, resisting the change that Smith’s work described. Smith’s sculptures aren’t modernist, they’re Baroque. The Minimalists were faced with the dilemma of  object-makers in a world where interrelations are more important than things; to be loyal to their calling and limit it to what it could do best they became puritans. 
Panofsky called the Baroque a return to the openness of the Renaissance, but transposed. The Counter-Reformation had faded. Late Mannerism had been seen in the forms and facial expressions of sitters for Bronzino. “It is as though the life of these people had gone frozen, or hides itself behind a motionless mask, melancholy and cool, shy and supercilious at the same time.”[iv]That imagery of curdled utopianism is ubiquitous; nihilism is everywhere.  But all these things are mixed, especially now: openness and authoritarian dystopia, humanism and anti-humanism. The Reagan years were floods of human warmth compared to now; the decadence of the 70s is looked back on with nostalgia as an age of innocence. 
In the 80s Stella managed to turn what had devolved into formalist kitsch into something American and grand: the grandeur of the American landscape meeting the formalism of the pedantic American imagination. He rationalized his way over decades and made the result into a baroque amalgam of Walt Disney and Herman Melville, and he made it work. 
Moby Dick, or the White Whale.
A hunt. The last great hunt.
For what ?
For Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow- white.
Of course he is a symbol.
Of what ?
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it.[v]

I quoted Lawrence earlier not just as someone critical of America but as a great critic of American art. His essay on Moby Dick is brilliant
At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won't do.
And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it's not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.
Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he's not sure of himself And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.
The artist was so much greater than the man. The man is rather a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, etc. So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humour. So hopelessly au grand serieux, you feel like saying: Good God, what does it matter? If life is a tragedy, or a farce, or a disaster, or any- thing else, what do I care! Let life be what it likes. Give me a drink, that's what I want just now.
For my part, life is so many things I don't care what it is. It's not my affair to sum it up. Just now it's a cup of tea. This morning it was wormwood and gall. Hand me the sugar.
One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!
But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.
The one mistake is to say that Melville ceases to be an American when he lets go, but without the repression you can’t have the escape. But I’m not going to go off on an excursus on Stella. He’s succeeded in making complex things, bright and dark, pop and sophisticated; with an optimism suited for the era of Reagan and Thatcher. I’m not going to quibble about politics. The baroque is conservative; it’s big money without guilt; it ignores things. 
The 80’s was the beginnings of art’s move into commercial culture, not the use of its imagery, but the desire to be part of it. 80’s art is full of people who wanted to make movies, who were trying to escape the contempt for film, and for pictorialism, that they were raised with. It’s hard to explain the hold of Greenberg’s moralizing puritanism on the imaginations of people in that world, of Greenberg’s formalism but also the moralizing and intellectual snobbery of conceptualism. I’ll deal in a later section with the artists from what’s now called “The Pictures Generation”, artists torn between jealousy and snobbish contempt for film, a few of whom later after they were successful as artists tried and bombed in Hollywood. Stella found a way out. In 1983 he was asked to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. His subject was Caravaggio and the future of painting. Working Space[vi]is a testament to the results of years of rationalization and slow transformation. Stella the fundamentalist worked through all the logical arguments he’d grown up with and while still claiming the same faith, he ended up a liberal. If Stella were a brilliant writer it would be a brilliant book. But Stella is one of the most important artists of the post war era; the book is ancillary, doing awkwardly what the work describes brilliantly.  
Deleuze claimed that philosophers create concepts. They don't. To repeat what I wrote above: “By the time anything becomes known as an idea, it’s been around for awhile. Concepts come late to the game. Sensibilities predate their clear articulation.” Nihilism came with Modernism, De Sade is a creature of the Enlightenment, negative idealism that scoffed at but couldn’t escape mirroring utopian claptrap. To rationalists the first answer to rationalism is irrationalism. But then slowly they begin to adapt.  From Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production, by the architectural historian Dalibor Vesely. 
The critical turning point in the formation of modern aesthetics was the contribution of Leibniz, who opposed the Cartesian autonomy of clear and distinct ideas that deprived human senses of any claim to understanding and truth. He firmly believed that our senses do, in their own way, reveal the nature and truth of the world. Unlike ideas, however, the senses are not clear and distinct but only clear and confused, and for that reason inferior. Somewhat poetically he compares them to the murmur of the sea: 
"Although our senses relate to everything, it is not possible for our soul to attend to all individually, and that is why our confused sensations are the result of a variety, altogether infinite, of perceptions. It is almost like the confused murmur heard by those approaching the shores of the sea that arises from the accumulation of the reverberations of the innumerable waves." Leibniz's understanding of the senses is still based on the integrity of the scholastic world in which the sensible or visible is a manifestation of the universal order. This manifestation is also our main encounter with beauty, in which the perfection of the order is revealed. What is new in Leibniz is the shift toward individualizing such experiences, which coincides with his notion of the individual soul as monad. As he sees it, 
the beauty of the universe could be learned in each soul, could one unravel all its folds which develop perceptibly only with time. But as each distinct perception of the soul includes an infinity of confused perceptions which embrace all the universe, the soul itself does not know the things which it perceives, except in so far as it has perceptions of them which are distinct and heightened and it has perceptions in proportion to its distinct form. Each soul knows the infinite, knows everything, but confusedly.
Such confusion arose, Leibniz and his contemporaries thought, because perceptions could not account for their own reason, because their origins and meaning remained hidden. For Leibniz himself and others who believed in providence, this obscurity was not a significant problem, because the unknown, inexplicable, and mysterious was seen as part of the divine plan of things. However, for those who believed in the transparency of the world, in reason, the inexplicable was very troubling. It was difficult to accept that whole areas of reality, such as works of art or the landscape, stirred strong feelings and a sense of beauty that could not be ignored yet could not be explained. This experience was described already in the seventeenth century as the "je ne sais quoi—I know not what."
Dominique Bouhours, who devoted a whole treatise to the issue, declares: "One can say with certainty that 'je ne sais quoi' is one of the greatest wonders and one of the greatest mysteries of nature." Montesquieu, some eighty years later, writes: "There is something in people and in things, an invisible charm, a natural grace, which cannot be defined and which one is forced to name je ne sais quoi.' It seems to me that this is an effect based primarily on surprise." The self-sufficiency of the Leibnizian monad was what brought the inexplicable into the domain of subjectivity, "each mind being as it were a little divinity in its own department."
With Leibniz, we stand on the threshold of a new epoch, in which the harmony and beauty of the world, revealed gradually in a dialectical process, became a field of aesthetic experience dependent on the cultivation of taste and on the role of the genius. The new experience created a distance from things and events, thereby contributing to the formation of modern aestheticism and historicism. Aestheticization itself is closely linked with the relativity of taste and the formalization of experience. [vii]
The translator of Deleuze’ book on Leibniz and the Baroque is a philologist. A history of rationalism is an act of empiricism. Philosophers don’t create concepts any than the first man, or woman, to say "je ne sais quoi” was the first to smile in appreciation. Aesthetics begins when things in the world no longer give a direct relation to universals, when objects as thingsbecome the experience of  things. Experience is individual, a danger to authority. It’s a danger to eternal truths, and thus to the King, as history is a danger to philosophy. Leibniz and Deleuze, as philosophers and conservatives, struggle to reconcile the multiform with the ideal. They’re creatures of their time, no more or less than Caravaggio and Stella. 
Stella defends a spatial formalism, including illusion, in effect defending what is now a cinematic eye, cinematic rather than photographic because the eye is moving. The lectures and book caused a ruckus at the time, but what struck me was less the discovery of Caravaggio than the denial of the worldliness that came with it. This was the 80’s of Schnabel and Salle, the rise of big money in big art, the time when the darkness of Warhol became the common theme. It was a time of crisis, a crisis that only faded because the fights in any real sense were given up. But Stella cruised along unfazed, now like a Hollywood filmmaker who’d never bucked the system to make the work he wanted to make. He was successful young; he’d never had to. He never claimed to be a leftist, a maker of “radical art”. He was only a painter who’d rationalized himself into a corner when he was young and rationalized himself out of it as he grew older. There’s honesty to that.  
Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History is one of the founding texts of the field. It’s a brilliant book. When I read it, a bit late, I thought of Stella and it made me laugh. It was all there, even the evasion of the political in favor of the formal. And then more recently I found the paper quoted below and it made me laugh again. Irving Lavin was a friend of Panofsky, the editor of the  book of Panofsky’s essays that I’ve quoted, and his successor at the Institute of Advanced Study. This was presented at a symposium at the University of Jena to coincide with an Stella exhibition.  
Wölfflin defined five categories of human perception between the extreme poles of which all artistic development must inevitably oscillate. He illustrated his principles by the contrast between the historical periods of the Renaissance and Baroque, but the categories have been also been applied to French painting of the nineteenth century and to the development from Classical to Hellenistic in ancient Greece. And, mirabile dictu, Wölfflin’s categories fit Frank Stella’s development like a finely tailored Italian suit of clothes: linear to painterly, planarity to spatiality, closed to open form, multiplicity to unity, clarity to unclarity  …Consider even the subcategories Wölfflin includes under Closed versus Open Form: Geometric versus Organic structure, Symmetry versus Asymmetry; frame controls composition versus “accidental” relationship between composition and frame. The “flat,” rectilinear, parallel lines of the early stripe paintings reappear in the recent “smoke ring” motifs, transformed into looping skeins that remain parallel but now define intricate, looping, transparent planes. The graphic system uncannily recalls that of Mellan, except that Mellan models form by varying the thickness of the line, whereas Stella’s computer-generated filaments are uniform and modulate space by expansions and contractions of the intervening distances. You would think that Stella had read Wölfflin; I never asked him, and I don’t want to know. 
The only problem with this is that it reduces Stella’s work to formalism. Later in the essay Lavin falls back into the hyperbole of the artist as a god-like creator of worlds, boilerplate that works only if you add that it means good artists are great liars, and that great artists tell lies so well they affect you against your will. Lies are formal constructions; their forms are the manifestation of an ethos, a “value system”, and we read and interpret them in relation to each other. Donald Judd’s “unrelational” objects
 exist in relation to their environments and also, obviously, since he says so specifically, to art and ideas that he thought were wrong or “messed up”.  Stella’s best works are bright and poppy, graceful and blunt, dark and violent. It’s worth thinking about, and with, and through.  You can use them to think about the late 20th century, about America, about “art”, about the individual and society, about capitalism, about Caravaggio and Disney World, Clement Greenberg, Herman Melville and Steven Spielberg.  Like all philosophy, his is best read for context
Stella interviewed in 1969 
I wrote my thesis on Celtic, Carolingian and Ottoman manuscript illumination. And it was ostensibly involved with historical problems, about problems in kingship and political issues, and how the ideas of the political leaders of the time were represented by the representations of the God or king figures in the manuscript illumination. But more than a third of it is devoted to a kind of pseudo-aesthetic appreciation of the problems of sort of[sic] interweave and interlace mainly in Celtic work, with a long aside which  should have been a footnote. But since I had to pad the thesis to make
it acceptable I actually included it in the thing on Pollock and the basic problem of decoration and what actually constitutes decoration and how decoration becomes art and when it ceases to be just decoration. And my argument essentially was that both Pollock and Celtic illumination were both art. One happened to be painting and one was manuscript illumination, but they both reached the category of art and left the lower category of simple repetitive design or pedestrian decoration far behind. It doesn't sound very radical in a way. [viii]
1983
The question we must ask ourselves is: Can we find a mode of pictorial expression that will do for abstraction now what Caravaggio's pictorial genius did for sixteenth-century naturalism and its magnificent successors? The expectation is that the answer is yes, but first we have to try to understand what Caravaggio actually did in order to see if his accomplishment can help us. …

But, after all, the aim of art is to create space — space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space in which the subjects of painting can live. This is what painting has always been about. Sadly, however, the current prospects for abstraction seem terribly narrowed; its sense of space appears shallow and constricted. This seems ironic when we remember that painting had to work so hard to create its own space, or perhaps more accurately, had to work so hard to free itself from architecture. [ix]

Neither Stella nor Judd began with the Enlightenment; neither began with humanism. Stella changed. Judd stayed loyal to his original preoccupations. He collaborated with dancers; he let choreographers supply an organic element; Stella does it all himself.  You see how the ambiguities build. But both are in the space between philosophical absolutes and relativism,  relativism which can also mean no more than the description of subjective experience, as in theater, literature, film.  For Judd and Stella, that’s still not enough.  


[i]  Edward Mendelson. “Post-Modern Vanguard”, London Review of Books,  September 3 1981
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n16/edward-mendelson/post-modern-vanguard
[ii]Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd”, interview edited by Lucy R. Lippard, Art News, September 1966, in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, University of California Press, 1995
[iii]http://www.artnews.com/2015/07/10/what-you-see-is-what-you-see-donald-judd-and-frank-stella-on-the-end-of-painting-in-1966/
[iv]  Panofsky, “What  is Baroque”
[v] Lawrence, “Herman Melville’s Moby Dick”  
[vi]  Frank Stella, Working Space, Harvard University Press, 1986
[vii]Dalibor Vesely, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production, MIT, 2006
[viii]Sidney Tillim, “Oral history interview with Frank Stella”, 1969. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
[ix]Stella, Working Space

No comments: