Thursday, December 01, 2022

The Anxiety of Influence

In all the years I've been working on the thing, there's an essay I've avoided citing. Peter Hutchinson: "Mannerism in the Abstract", in Battcock's Minimalism anthology. I have it. I bought it or stole it 40 years ago. I've read it and remembered it and put it out  my mind more than once. Maybe it was just that it helped me too much and I wanted to struggle.

Contemporary Mannerist work sometimes gets so extreme in its use of acid color, exaggeration of shape, and in its drama that it appears hysterical. Indeed in today’s reaction against Romanticism, against Freudian explanation, against pure logic, these artists see themselves as useless members in a society where everybody is useless. Where art was once the only useless thing, now everything has lost meaning. If the artist himself feels he is losing meaning, no wonder he reacts with hysteria. He does super works with the directionless energy of a hysteric – and the result is often hysteria’s attendant paralysis. The coldness, the lack of motion, the acidity of color, the lack of detail (expression), are Mannerist symptoms felt before in other centuries in times of mounting disbelief. Bronzino’s human contemporary view will break out into horizons broader than hitherto, views not seen entirely from the human scope. It would be a true Mannerist convention that works done despairingly, that desperately parody, should turn out to be truly significant.

The scientist offers a hopeful world, a world where inevitable progress discovers more and more, a world that gets better and better. This world is sane, stable, and knows where it is going. The Mannerist counters with a world in intellectual hysteria, punctuated by frozen activity, a world where space-time cease to have meaning, a world of soundless gestures, where humans do not live.

But there's an even weirder example: pathological. I was a huge fan of Robert Smithson in the early 80s. I was working for his dealer in 1985. I read his writing, even reciting one of his essays in a video. The first time I saw a Koons I got the fucking point. In art as opposed to literature—I read Calvino and Borges as a teenager—Smithson was at the beginning of all this shit.  I cover all of it in the manuscript but about Smithson himself, nothing... NOTHING

Smithson, from The Collected Writings. Brilliant, hilarious

"A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art" (1968) 

Peter Hutchinson, author of "Is There Life on Earth?" (Art in America, Fall 1966), uses the discards of last year's future in order to define today's present. His method is highly artificial and is composed of paralyzed quotes, listless theories, and bland irony. His abandoned planets maintain unthinkable "cultures," and have tasteless "tastes." In "Mannerism in the Abstract" (Art and Artists, September 1966) Hutchinson lets us know about "probabilities, contingencies, chances, and cosmic breakdown." "Scientism" is shown to be actually a kind of Mannerist science full of obvious disguises and false bottoms. "Topology surely mocks plane geometry," says Hutchinson. But actually his language usage de- liberately mocks his own meaning, so that nothing is left but a gratuitous syn- tactical device. His writing is marvelously "inauthentic." The complexity and richness of Hutchinson's method starts with science fiction cliches, and scientis- tic conservations and ends in an extraordinary esthetic structure. To paraphrase Nathalie Sarraute on Flaubert,"Here Hutchinson's defects become virtues."

"Abstract Mannerism" (1966-67)

Ever since Clement Greenberg took over T. S. Eliot's role as the formalist culture-hero, he has been the keeper of abstract "quality." The word "quality" has many propaganda purposes. It is used in the art world the same way it is used in the advertising world. "The canvas standard stands for quality," Marcel Duchamp might say. Nevertheless, it was Greenberg, who in his flight from hard-core Cubism to soft-core Cubism, i.e., from Picasso to Morris Louis, stumbled on that great Mannerism, ultra-consciousness of the "framing edge." Before we go on, let us look back into awful art history. Jacques Bousquet in his book Mannerism says, "By a typically Mannerist paradox, the frame became the picture. In France, the feigned frame enjoyed great vogue." Meanwhile, back at the Avant-Garde, which is beyond history, Greenberg tells us in his essay,"American type" Painting, "What is destroyed is the Cubist, and immemorial, notion and feeling of the picture edge as a confine; with (Barnett) Newman, the picture edge is repeated inside, and makes the picture, instead of merely being echoed." History repeats itself, but in the Abstract.

"From Ivan The Terrible to Roger Corman or Paradoxes of Conduct in Mannerism as Reflected in the Cinema" (1967)

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are Mannerist on every level. "As early as the credit list monstrous faces writhe on a background of threatening sky," says Andre Techine writing in Cahiers du Cinema, "The obsolete device of double exposure is reinforced by the crudity of grimaces. No artifice is spared the spectator. The contrivances are avowed." Torn Curtain is perhaps even more manneristic than Vertigo. Hitchcock's actors, like the figures in pictures by Jacopo da Pontormo, seem trapped in a beautiful prison that produces intricate types of "visual nausea." (See Mannerism-Style and Mood by Daniel B. Rowland.) A sweetness of color pervades the totalitarian settings in Torn Curtain. One thinks of the moods defined in Vladimir Nabokov's novels. In Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov seems to be describing the Hitchcockian view, "I am here through an error—not in this prison, specifically, but in this whole terrible, striped world; a world which seems not a bad example of amateur craftsmanship, but is in reality calamity, horror, madness, error—and look, the curio slays the tourist, the gigantic carved bear brings its wooden mallet down on me." The red ribbons, that represent a fire in a ballet scene, in Torn Curtain, suggest a means of escape to Paul Newman (scientist-spy) when he shouts "Fire." A panic turns Julie Andrews' face into a mask of exhaustion not unlike the swooning face of the Virgin in Pontormo's Deposition. The "amateur craftsmanship" is everywhere in Hitchcock's mise en scene, from the ghastly green glow over roof tops in Vertigo to the diabolical sky in The Birds. Hitchcock's humor informs every terrible situation he takes his "bad" actors through. His settings are a vast simulacra built by an evil demiurge, and peopled with frozen automatons.

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