Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jed Perl- Art Critic on the 99% of Us Left Behind or Why So Few of Us Will Ever Grab the Brass Ring if that is Our Deepest Desire.

Rita Baragona
Recently I have been drawn to the writing of art critic Jed Perl. His criticism appears in the New Republic and in the past, Vogue, The New Criterion etc. He is considered by some to be a conservative critic because he does not embrace the money and fame saturated stars of  the late 20th and early 21st century. He calls John Currin "a flyspeck of a painter" and  says Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter. He has little use for the mega stars of today- Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Anselm Keifer, Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons to name a few. He has no patience for photographically derived works, especially those of Chuck Close. He eviscerates their work with deftly wielded words. He is not always succinct- but always passionate,  deeply knowledgeable and never boring.

This particular article puts in perspective, why those of us looking in at the billion dollar feast being served up in the art world to a few, are left with the crumbs. 

Some of us deserve our fate- we do not take our craft and seriously enough and turn out reams and reams of junk. We slavishly revisit old academic forms of painting, copy photographs, so our work has nothing from our inner being, nothing original or surprisingly fresh. We invest little. But not all of us,  he points to many worthy  artists he thinks are ignored. Some I like- some I don't but there are some inspiring revelations. 

 Mr. Perl makes the poignant revelation of just  how disheartening this state is for a large number of very worthy artists having to endure year after year of indifference and financial hardship.

 His ideal artist is a traditionalist with radical ambitions. His favorite artist is Watteau.

An article of one of his favorite figurative artists, Gabriel Laderman written after his death.

On Gerhard Richter

Here is an excerpt from his book  "Eyewitness Reports From an Art World in Crisis", published in 2000, but even more relevant today.

 CHAPTER ONE Eyewitness Reports From an Art World in Crisis
By JED PERL Basic Books

The Entertainment Industry

About a decade ago, when Cindy Sherman started showing her big Cibachrome self-portraits and it seemed as if every hot artist in New York was into photographic imagery, an editor from a general interest weekly magazine called me to ask if I'd be interested in doing a story about Sherman. Actually, the piece he had in mind would look at much more than Cindy Sherman. This editor wanted a writer to survey the whole phenomenon of artists who appropriate photography; Sherrie Levine had been rephotographing classic images for a couple of years, and Doug and Mike Starn were beginning to cause a stir with their collages made of stained and ripped photographs. The editor knew that I didn't have any patience for Sherman's work. In fact, he was interested in me in part because I'd already written a thumbs-down piece. My opinions, he assured me, weren't a problem; I could say anything I wanted in the article. He wasn't interested in whether the work was good or bad. He was interested in all the excitement that Cindy Sherman and these other artists were generating.

    In the week or so between his call and the lunch date that we arranged, I found myself regarding the project with increasing trepidation. I didn't think I could do the piece, and when we got together I explained why. I disliked Sherman's work passionately; but my decision was based on something more than my reaction to the work. My feeling was that Sherman's notoriety was basically a public relations gambit, and I didn't want to become a part of the PR. At that point my lunch companion began to act rather uneasy. He had meant the assignment as an opportunity for me, and he found my qualms more than a little bizarre. The more we talked, the more hostile he became. He accused me of careerism; and an odd kind of reverse careerism it was that would have me turning down what was clearly a major assignment. He was so upset that he suggested that I pay for my half of our meal.
    Things calmed down a little by the time we got to the espresso. He asked if there was another story that I wanted to do. There was. I suggested that in fact there is a whole other art world out there—what a lot of us have come to call, shorthand style, the real art world. There are artists who are working consistently, evolving in boom times and in bust times, and I proposed that they deserve a hell of a lot more attention than they receive. I explained that I didn't want to add fuel to the Sherman boom precisely because booms like this one are sucking life and energy out of the other art world. Art stars like Sherman—and David Salle and Julian Schnabel—have distorted the art scene. Their exhibitions don't give public expression to private feelings so much as they offer canny responses to market pressures. The mass appeal of an artist like Schnabel has everything to do with his indifference to what ought to be an artist's most urgent concern, which is the internal logic of a work of art. As for the artists who do care about what goes on inside art, they are being left with fewer and fewer outlets for their work. By now the serious artists are desperate; they're gasping for air.
    As it happened, I was able to name at least one member of this other, private art world that the editor knew. "Oh her," he said. "Is she important?" I told him that to many people she is one of the best sculptors alive, but he seemed nonplussed by the thought, and also by my idea for an alternative story. He'd called me up to commission an article about an art star, not to find out that there is a completely different, unglamorous, half-buried scene out there.
    You don't have to know anything about art to know that the art world is surefire cultural entertainment, and that was the one thing this editor knew for sure. A bit of Sherman bashing would be okay; a little outrageousness on the part of artists and critics alike helps to give the art world its appeal. People like to hear that the art stars are overinflated. That's part of the titillation. But when you tell an editor that something more is at stake, that the hype around the public art world may actually hurt somebody, that is too much. Nobody wants to believe that the art stars are destroying the visual arts. If that's the case, things could begin to get depressing. You might even end up feeling guilty for having treated the art world as a playground, as little more than high-end media gossip. But of course the editor found somebody who would do the job he wanted done. A couple of months later, I opened up that magazine and there was Cindy Sherman, larger than life.

What Is Art?

Taken at face value, that lunch date, though a less than perfectly amiable encounter, wasn't really worth worrying about. But I think something fundamental was at stake. The editor I was talking with is a serious fellow, and he obviously felt that by looking at some much-talked-about new art, and how it's being promoted and discussed, and who's selling and who's buying, we could learn something not only about the work of these photo artists but also about ourselves. I can appreciate this line of thinking, but only up to a point. People have always been fascinated by the relationship between the context in which art is experienced and the content of art itself. Why shouldn't they be? But when an editor tells a critic that it doesn't really matter if you like the work or not, just so long as you report on what everybody is saying about it, my alarm bells start going off. We are at a point where context is in danger of swamping content.

    The assumptions I brought to that lunch date are the same ones I bring to a gallery or a museum show. I believe that a work of art must have a free-standing value. Formal values are one element in the equation; I take it for granted that a work we experience visually must be visually resolved. But the artist who gives this work its value is pulling together all kinds of experiences. Narrative may be as important as color; the startling character of the imagery may be what fuels the vigor of the line. What counts is that whatever the artist is thinking or feeling is absorbed into the look, the character, the intricacies of the work. The painting, the sculpture, the collage, the assemblage makes its own terms, and we judge what we see.
    Now I'm sure that that editor believes in the freestanding value of a work of art. But I'm also fairly certain that he believes that such value is colored, mutated, revalued by the context in which we see the work. A painting or sculpture that he might agree is not especially engaging gains interest—which for him may be equivalent to value—because there's a lot of buzz around it, because it's expensive, or because it's being promoted by the right collector, dealer, curator, or critic. Of course people have always been interested in some version of what we now think of as market forces and fashion shifts, but never before have so many intelligent people been so willing to believe that art is at the mercy of life, that art is less a thing unto itself than a habit of mind, a sort of accent or highlight that can adhere to anything. And so we are urged to regard fashion as art, career as art, money as art.
    The ever-deepening divide between what I think of as the public and private art worlds is less the product of market forces than the result of this fundamental disagreement about the nature of art. The freestanding value of art is essentially an insider's idea, born of the experience of the studio, where emotions, sensibilities, and experiences are given a form that can carry meaning. That the whole world should revere the stand-alone magic of such works—of a Rembrandt self-portrait, for example, or of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie—does not make this any less a private ideal. The world goes to the Rembrandt or the Mondrian for the explosively, expansively private experiences that they afford. Or so I believe. The contextualists see it differently. For them, Rembrandt's self-portraits are mostly of interest as reflections of a seventeenth-century idea of the individual; they're about marketing individualism. And Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie is a sort of seismographic record of twentieth-century atomization and alienation. Art, in short, does not so much shape the world as it is shaped by the world. Paintings and sculptures are tokens and artifacts; they're regarded as the sloughed-off shells of cultural or social experiences. This view may originate in a nineteenth-century reaction against the bourgeois sentimentalization of art. But what began as an anticapitalist critique has turned out to be a marketer's dream. The Marxist who says that no artist's imagination is free has provided a comfortable context for the corporate executive who wants to fund only the museum retrospective of the artist whose work has the widest appeal.
    Of course I'm drawing the lines a little more clearly than they are generally drawn in life. Many people who concern themselves with the visual arts know that a painting or sculpture ought to stand alone; they are contextualists only to a certain degree. But the drift of current thinking is invariably in the contextualist direction, and contemporary artists who don't tilt that way are bound to have a hard time. Take the painter Joan Snyder, whose wonderfully extravagant presentations of high-flying emotions ought to give her work a wide appeal. In large, panoramic paintings such as A Sad Story Told by an Optimist, Snyder gives almost operatic colorings to themes of death and hope; she does this kind of thing more convincingly than any other artist of our day. Yet Snyder, who was born in 1940, has not yet had a significant New York museum show, a fact that I believe is linked to the emphatically private, freestanding nature of the work she does. Her paintings don't appeal to the contextualists, and they pretty much control the upper echelons of the art establishment.
    Cindy Sherman, by contrast, is a phenomenal success precisely because her work is all about the cultural context. In her earlyUntitled Film Stills, Sherman managed to give these contextualist themes some visual musicality. I don't think that the Untitled Film Stills are a galvanic achievement, but Sherman's small-sized self-portraits, in which she enacts dozens of movie and TV scenarios, offer such delicate variations on cinematic conventions that the camp sensibility achieves a certain detached, dream-like unity. In the work that Sherman has done since the Film Stills, however—and this includes everything from her stagey impersonations of figures in Old Master portraits to a recent series focusing on battered GI Joe and Ken dolls—the dramatics are little more than talking points and polemical flourishes. Sherman's costumes and disguises are custom-made for the contextualists; her mutating imagery is just right for an audience that believes that art has no substance, no essence.
    Sherman's defenders will argue that her house-of-mirrors images are part of a long tradition, and there is no denying that the assault on the stand-alone integrity of art has come from within art itself and has been aimed with a deathly precision that only insiders could muster. As early as the 1880s, a group of Parisian artists who called themselves the Incohérents highlighted the preposterousness of official art by creating what amounted to the first anti-art. The Incohérents turned artistic conventions into howling absurdities when they carried lyric elusiveness into mind-numbing emptiness and twisted expressive dramas into cartoonish confusions. There is certainly some intellectual allure to the games that the Incohérents played. And no one can deny that Marcel Duchamp's steel-trap enigmas have had a vast appeal. Yet when a skepticism about the essential value of art is built into art, we are in for bad times.
    Whether you call this approach Dadaist, contextualist, situationist, or some other name, the assumption is that art is born, lives, and dies in the public sphere. Such an art can have no freestanding value; the very idea of value is regarded as a social construct. It's difficult to defend art against this contextualist assault, especially if we are honest enough to admit that although art has a freestanding value it stands in different places at different times. Once we have acknowledged that art is always on the move, the contextualists will say that we have given away the game. But to argue that a stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral or a painting of lovers in a park by Watteau achieves its stand-alone authority in relation to a particular time and place is not to deny that each work has a life of its own. And for those of us who still crave the thrilling experiences that only art can offer, understanding exactly where the contextualist assault came from may be far less important than figuring out where we go from here. I know that there are still plenty of artists and gallerygoers and museumgoers who want that stand-alone experience. But in a world where the art market seems to have more intellectual cachet than art itself, there may be nothing more difficult than finding a way for artists and audiences to come together and actually, simply, look at art.

Hidden Achievements

The glamour factor in the art world is nothing new. Art chat has been keeping people amused, annoyed, seduced, irate for a very long time. In America, the modern publicity mills began to crank up with the Armory Show of 1913, but they only really got going in 1949, whenLife magazine gave its readers a good laugh by suggesting that Jackson Pollock, a moody Greenwich Village legend who liked to drip paint, just might be the greatest artist alive. Once the public had wondered at and howled over Pollock, the pattern was set and people were screaming for more. Pop Art was hog heaven, and everybody hopped on the art merry-go-round. If you couldn't afford a Jasper Johns Flag, at least you could afford the American flag canisters that were sold at hip shops like Azuma. By the 1980s it was taken for granted that Wall Street money fueled the carnival, and everybody was talking about the waiting list to buy paintings at the Mary Boone Gallery and about the size of the latest art star's loft in SoHo.

    Looking back on all of this, there are those who will say that my talk with that magazine editor was just business as usual. The media, after all, have their share of fairly sophisticated status quo types, and if you begin to say that the hype has gone out of control, they'll probably tell you that it was just as bad back in the nineteenth century, when Baudelaire and Daumier were complaining about the philistines at the Salons. But of course knowing that things were bad once upon a time does not mean that they are necessarily okay today. In any event, things are not all bad. Far from it. In the galleries there is good work to be seen. In the studios of New York—and, for all I know, across the country—artists in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s are making the incremental developments and the leaps that take art to a new place. But even as the headlines have shifted from Julian Schnabel's plate smashings to Jesse Helms's NEA bashings—and now, in the late '90s, to the architects who design the museums where all the overscaled art of the past quarter century is going on permanent display—the most important story in the art world remains untold.
    The support system of galleries, grants, collectors, curators, and publications that makes it possible for artists to have slow-developing, serious careers is in a state of near total collapse. Most of the people who believe in the freestanding value of art have been silenced—if not swept away. This is what you hear if you talk to the artists. Living in the midst of an overinflated art world, an art world where context is all, painters and sculptors no longer know where to turn. Fewer and fewer shows get reviewed because the work has some inherent quality; fewer and fewer galleries are willing to make the commitment to an artist's gradual development. The art world, to the extent that it supports a vital evolutionary process, is on the verge of extinction. The artists—let me emphasize are still at work. But they are in despair, and their despair is turning into a masochistic malaise that threatens them from within, even as career options disappear. What follows is a description of an art scene in crisis. Some of the names I am going to mention will be unfamiliar, but the unfamiliarity of this story is a part—a big part—of its significance.
    Who exactly are these artists who are not receiving the support that they need and deserve? I could name many, each a different case, each unable to receive a proper hearing. To begin, I want to point briefly to two: Barbara Goodstein and Stanley Lewis. Both are in their 50s, both have shown at small cooperative galleries in New York City for years. Goodstein is probably the most original sculptor of her generation. The landscapes in her show at the Bowery Gallery in the spring of 1999 announced a new pastoral mode, a pastoral in which serenity seems to be wrenched from the jangling upheavals of modern life. As for Lewis, some of the landscape paintings and drawings that he has produced in the past quarter century are as beautiful as any that have been created anywhere in the world during this period. And the large, densely worked drawings of studio interiors that he exhibited in 1995 are among the most eloquent impressions of the space where an artist creates that I have ever seen. Goodstein and Lewis come out of an underground art world where tradition and innovation are still believed to be reconcilable. New Yorkers may pay lip service to this viewpoint, but if you're looking for a clever career move, you'd be advised to look elsewhere, which basically means you'd be advised to join forces with the contextualists.
    Goodstein's sculpture is in low relief, and her technique is absolutely her own. She works in plaster on plywood boards, building up this wonderfully fluid material into forms that are a sculptor's reconsideration of the traditions of painterly painting. Her subjects are the figure and the landscape, but everything in her works is simplified, reduced, so that what meets the eye is a sequence of iconic, telegraphic signs. A panoramic landscape is transformed into a couple of undulating arabesques. A house next to a tree is evoked with the deliberate brevity of Chinese calligraphy. Some of Goodstein's finest figure pieces are variations on classical themes—the Three Graces, the Pietà—and here she seems to feel the pressure of the whole tradition pushing her forward. Often she paints the boards black or dark green, so that the pats and lines and jabs of plaster stand out like stars in a night sky. Her figures are summations, abbreviations. The cycle of Three Graces is her memory of Raphael remembering Pompeii. Goodstein's work, with its passionate mix of conventional sources and unconventional methods, is astonishingly concise.
    Stanley Lewis's representational paintings are also informed by a taste for abstraction. Lewis has a gift for ripe, painterly surfaces and for plangent, gray-purple-green tonalities. His landscapes may remind people of the work of contemporary English Expressionists, of Leon Kossoff and especially Frank Auerbach. The jagged forms in Lewis's landscapes could even strike some gallerygoers as borrowings from Auerbach, but I find Lewis at his best to be an infinitely more satisfying and original artist than Auerbach ever is. In Lewis's smallish paintings, the angles and elisions that suggest a fascinatingly labyrinthine sense of space really add up; they give us a complete view. And no one else has rendered the odd, edgy spaces in suburban America—the sides of roads, the gas stations—with quite the lyric delicacy that Lewis achieves. His America, shambly and appealing, is not unlike Kossoff's London. In recent years, some of Lewis's most complex and beguiling inventions have been his drawings. The big, heavily worked views of his own jam-packed studio, with pencil lines jabbing into and even tearing at the paper, have a thrillingly overelaborated Mannerist power.
    Terrific work—by artists who range in age from their late 30s to their early 70s—isn't always ignored entirely, but it rarely receives the concentrated, serious attention that it deserves. Why isn't there more focus on the abstract sculpture of Geoffrey Heyworth and the figure sculpture of Robert Taplin and Natalie Charkow; on the abstract paintings of Spencer Gregory, Bill Barrell, Pat Adams, Shirley Jaffe, Thornton Willis, and Trevor Winkfield; on the geometrized realities that we encounter in the work of Jacqueline Lima, Richard Chiriani, and Alfred Russell; and on the various kinds of representational painting that are done by Rita Baragona, Richard La Presti, Carl Plansky, Temma Bell, Mari Lyons, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Gabriel Laderman, Lennart Anderson, Helen Miranda Wilson, Lisa Zwerling, and Ned Small? I could mention more artists who are equally gifted, equally deserving of additional attention. Even when painters who are doing major work have reasonably big followings—I'm thinking, again, of Joan Snyder, and also of Bill Jensen—they seem to remain coterie tastes, admired in art departments, collected to some degree, but not really part of the American art establishment that is known around the world.
    As for Barbara Goodstein's and Stanley Lewis's work, it's rarely seen by anybody beyond a small circle of admirers. And despite the extraordinary ability these artists have demonstrated to go it alone, to stay focused on the freestanding value of art, the long-term effects of such a restricted audience cannot be healthy. The absence of significant financial rewards is one problem, and by no means a minor one. Lewis, especially, has had a significant teaching career, which can fill the financial void. But even if we assume that committed artists do find a way to survive financially, there remains a larger question. What happens to an artist whose development receives so little public recognition? I am not speaking here about unfulfilled promise. I am referring to artists who have done an immense amount and now, at mid-career, are at the point where they have to find it within themselves to do even more. Can artists keep on doing their damnedest when the wide world doesn't give a damn? The question needs to be addressed right now. A generation that is coming into its own—that really has already come into its own—is having a terrible time making contact with the audience it deserves.
    Both Goodstein and Lewis owe a debt to the painter Leland Bell, who died in 1991 at the age of 69. Bell's grandly scaled figure compositions have a hard-edged yet free-flowing exuberance, and there's an astonishingly elegant vehemence to many of his self-portraits and portraits. These paintings, with their from-the-ground-up structural concision, suggest a number of ways in which a representational artist can learn from abstraction. Certainly both Goodstein and Lewis have built on some of Bell's ideas. But a comparison between his career and theirs makes it clear how much more dangerous it is to be an independent artist today than it was a generation or two ago, when Bell was making his way.
    Bell was often described as the archetypal art world outsider. Emerging in the years when Pop Art's clever Zeitgeist readings were dominating the news, Bell insisted that art has its own logic, its own power. True, he hardly ever sold a painting. But he had a distinguished dealer in Robert Schoelkopf, and over the years he was the subject of feature articles in Arts, Art News (by John Ashbery),Art in America (by John Hollander), and the New York Times, and in 1987 he finally received a retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Barbara Goodstein, although her sculpture doesn't look anything like Bell's painting, is the artist who I expect will carry Bell's brand of radically simplified representation into the next century, yet she has never had a dealer committed to her work, has never been the subject of a feature article in an art magazine, has never even had a work in a museum show. The difference in their careers tells you something very scary about the ever-diminishing opportunities for serious art since Bell arrived in New York in the 1940s.

In Public, in Private

In order to see why it is so much harder for authentic independent work to prosper now than it was a generation ago, we have to look beyond career specifics to the overall structure of the art scene. The art world that was born in New York after World War II is moving into its sixth decade, and what we've been seeing in the past few years is a systemic crisis. Matters have reached the point where nothing in the art world really seems to work any longer—not in a way that encourages what I would call major art, anyway. We're living in a dysfunctional art world. And to understand this disorder, we must understand what made the scene function (although often haltingly and half-heartedly) in the first place.

    The New York art world has always had two dimensions: one public, one private. To the extent that there was ever a meaningful relationship between these realms, the public art world was an outgrowth—and at best a reflection—of the private art world, of the artists' art world. It is always in the artists' art world that forms are reimagined and reinvented, and that new expressive possibilities come into their own.
    Of course this split between a public and a private art world is nothing new. The Salons and academies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, which generally operated under government auspices, acted as clearinghouses, making career defining decisions about which artists would gain access to commissions, patrons, and the public that visited major exhibitions. Need I point out that these premodern and early modern institutions had more than their share of bureaucratic rigidities? The every-man-for-himself free-for-all that began to take shape in the late nineteenth century, as artists found themselves competing for representation by an ever-growing number of commercial galleries, was a welcome change. In many respects the commercial dealers succeeded in giving individual artists a more direct access to the public. The relatively rapid acceptance of as radical a development as abstract art would have been inconceivable without the more fluid relationship between artist and audience that was fostered by a new generation of activist dealers.
    In the years after World War II, when the New York art world as we know it was first coming into focus, the private and public spheres were in a fairly healthy balance. Avant-garde Paris was a huge inspiration. And an all-American distaste for official patronage and the rigidities of tradition helped to give the New York situation a lively, improvisational character. Many people believed that a new kind of audience was coming into being—an audience that was more adventuresome, more independent. This was true, at least up to a point. There was an educated public that took an interest in developments at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, in art coverage in Time and Life, in the lineup at international shows such as the Venice Biennale, and in exhibitions at a few blue-chip commercial galleries, such as those of Sidney Janis and, later, Leo Castelli.
    But if avant-gardism was in certain respects in sync with an older American feeling for the importance of the individual, there were also danger signs. In the egalitarian atmosphere of New York, even casual gallerygoers could begin all too easily to imagine that they understood more about the avant-garde imagination than they really did. Context was beginning to overtake content. The sophisticated public's gossipy familiarity with the life and times of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning set the stage for a new kind of ultra-hip philistinism. And artists who wanted to be better known were sometimes glad to confuse the public imagination with their own. "Let your monstrous subconscious make a quick buck for yourself," the painter Ad Reinhardt announced in one of his cartoon collages, published in the magazine trans/formation in 1952. "Hollar `Hang the museums!'" he urged, "until they hang you, then clam up and collect."
    The curators, dealers, and editors who were shaping this fast-growing public art world had been weaned on the legendary doings of early-twentieth-century figures such as Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Gertrude and Leo Stein. The tastemakers at New York's museums, galleries, and magazines saw that their predecessors had looked to artists for guidance, and they meant to do the same in New York. They cared, especially after the war, about what the younger painters and sculptors were doing, and they agreed with the artists who saw the blue-chip galleries as fitting into a wider constellation of galleries and exhibitions, which included developments at some important artist-run cooperatives and artist-organized exhibitions (the Tenth Street annuals are an example). The artists were certainly aware of the expanding coverage in the more popular magazines, but they were also deeply absorbed by the discussions that went on at the Artists' Club, and by the hundreds of short reviews of exhibitions that appeared in the art magazines each and every month and added up to a blow-by-blow account of what artists were doing.
    The line between the public art world and the private art world was not always clear, and that porousness could be a good thing, at least when it worked to give private expressions a public dimension. The art magazines themselves had both a public and a private side. You might say that the feature articles in the art magazines were public, whereas the short reviews of one-person shows were a part of the private world. Art coverage in literary and political magazines such as the Nation and Partisan Review, despite their small readerships, could span the two realms, as did certain galleries, such as Betty Parsons' and Martha Jackson's. And when Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, took a part in artists' gatherings downtown, he was showing how involved he was with that more private art world. In 1960, in a letter to the New York Times, Barr said, "The artists lead: the museum follows, exhibiting, collecting and publishing their work. In so doing it tries to act with both wisdom and courage, but also with awareness of its own fallibility." Surely this was the truth, but the very fact that it needed to be stated so bluntly suggested that by 1960 there was reason to wonder if things were really still working this way.
    The essential point is that through most of the '50s, and to a lesser degree even into the '60s and '70s, the values and reputations that dominated the public art world were often formed in the artists' private art world. The fame that de Kooning and Pollock achieved in those years was an outgrowth of their downtown reputations. I do not mean to suggest that there was ever a time when everything went right. Far from it. The gonzo careerism that we think of as characteristic of the '80s had its origins in the '50s, and there were always reputations that were largely shaped by the public art world. But the fact is that, especially in the '50s and '60s, a great deal of the art that made its way uptown had its origins downtown, in a culture in which public renown, although desirable, was not a formative value, not the litmus test it would be once contextualism was king. Thus in the '50s, and to a lesser extent all the way into the '70s, the public art world could be said to be an imperfect but still pretty reliable mirror of the artists' art world, where what really mattered was the freestanding value of a work of art.
    More than that, there was a sense among artists, and among those who followed art closely, that a public reputation was of value only to the extent that it was seconded by artists. Many of the painters and sculptors who crowded into the Cedar Tavern, the Greenwich Village hangout that the Abstract Expressionists made famous in the 1950s, took it for granted that even those who had succeeded uptown would ultimately be judged downtown. Some of this was lip service, but much of it was not. There was a story that circulated about how delighted Jackson Pollock was when Earl Kerkam, a marvelous painter of figures and still lifes who had an archetypal artists' art world reputation, let him know that some recent work was "not bad." The point of the anecdote is that Pollock, despite his public fame, hungered for a kind of approval that only the artists' art world could provide.
    In the criticism that the painter Fairfield Porter was writing in the early '60s, the famous and the not-so-famous and the barely known are discussed next to one another, and they are judged basically not in terms of their success in the big public world but in terms of the value that their work has for their peers. No matter how well-known an artist became, the judgments of fellow artists continued to be extremely important. Mark Rothko's depression in the 1960s cannot be separated from his awareness that many artists and writers believed—and this belief was reflected in essays in little magazines such as Scrap and Evergreen Review—that he had fallen into a formula, which his spectacular success, including a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, somehow only underscored.
    Rothko committed suicide in 1970, dying in a pool of blood in his studio, and there is probably more than a kernel of truth to the luridly elaborate hagiography that has grown up around that terrible event. There were surely many factors that fueled his massive depression. But who can deny that Rothko was at least in part undone by a fame that, however much he had hungered for it, dissolved the very values that had once sustained him? In Rothko's later years, the public art world and the private art world were less and less able to function effectively as two sides of a single, relatively well-integrated organism. And if this two-part organism has continued to operate at all since the '70s, it is only because it's now operating in reverse, with the public art world dictating the terms of the private one. The growing prestige of American art gave the freestanding value of art a new context. Artists of Rothko's generation benefited. Then the context devoured the art.
    If we consider Duchamp's gnomic observation, made in 1957, to the effect that the spectator "adds his contribution to the creative act," we may begin to see that this reversal has a kind of Dadaist logic. Certainly, the Dadaists have done their damnedest to undermine the stand-alone integrity of art. But their authority probably originates in their having been the first people to see the writing on the wall and to bow to what they were not sorry to believe was an inevitability. By now, in any event, we are all, Dadaists and anti-Dadaists alike, at the mercy of developments that we are at best ill-equipped to control. And although we can describe these developments with a good deal of accuracy, we may never come up with a theory that explains them entirely to our satisfaction. What we do know is that in the nineteenth century the collapse of the old system of Salons and academies set the stage for an increasingly improvisational interaction between artist and audience—and for the incandescent excitement of the avant-garde. But apparently a creative relationship between the artist and the audience could also turn into a collusive relationship between avant-gardism and populism. Ultimately, this increasingly compromised alliance endangered the artist's hard-won modern status as the person who makes private experiences public.
    The beginning of the end came with the explosion of Pop Art in the early 1960s. But if I am correct in believing that the hostility to art's standalone power has a long history, then Pop Art was less a catalyzing force than a neat conclusion. Pop Art's subject matter dramatized the shift from a private to a public avant-garde because so many of those Pop images and motifs were drawn from material that had no private meaning for the artists. Andy Warhol, who came out of the world of advertising, defined a new kind of art world career—the career that was conducted entirely in the public eye. At that point the public art world became self-perpetuating; or at least it was then that avant-garde art came to be tied to market values rather than to artistic values.
    A whole culture has grown up in Warhol's wake, a culture that by now includes its own educational institutions, such as the California Institute of the Arts, where students are taught little, it seems to me, beyond how to have public art world careers. At such institutions, the freestanding value of art is an arcane idea—as odd, and maybe as oddly charming, as not wearing white shoes before Memorial Day. The public art world has become self-perpetuating. Contextualists are, of course, masters of self-perpetuation. As for the private art world, it has become increasingly isolated, fractured, frozen.

Diminishing Options

When I talk with literary people about what's going on in the art world, they often see parallels between art hype and book hype, and to some extent I suppose these analogies make sense. As a parallel to the artists' artists, to figures like Barbara Goodstein and Stanley Lewis, literary friends will think of writers' writers and poets' poets. The literary world, especially in the midst of the conglomeration of publishing in the '90s, offers plenty of analogies. But I think that there is reason to believe that the art world is even more vulnerable to media forces than the literary world. Works of art, which can be taken in with a single glance, create an illusion of instant capture, instant expertise. Although even a vaguely credible opinion about a novel will involve putting in the number of hours it takes to get through at least a part of the book, all it takes to have a vaguely credible opinion about a painting by David Salle is a swerve of your head around a gallery. Visual art provides people with the promise of instant access. And the art that gets the attention satisfies that need for quick satisfaction—it's all up front, there are no nuances or mysteries to unravel. It never takes you out of this world.

    Museums have become the places where the contemporary art hype reaches the boiling point. The museums expect to draw audiences of a size that they never dreamed of before, and they understandably feel that this enlarged public needs to be given a carefully shaped and predigested view of contemporary art. In order to create this neatly tailored picture, curators willfully deny the variety of the contemporary scene; they can't be bothered with stand-alone, private experiences. Even as the number of artists at work has expanded geometrically, the number of artists included in major surveys has plummeted. A generation ago, the important contemporary overviews held at the Whitney in New York and the Carnegie in Pittsburgh contained 100 or more artists; today they often include a half, or a quarter, of that number. The truth is that the old surveys were often criticized for their eclecticism and their aimlessness, but in retrospect we can see that at least they gave a large number of artists some access to a museum audience—and vice versa. At the same time, they kept curators out of the godlike position they have achieved in recent years. Those older surveys weren't summaries of trends, they were designed for an audience with some sophistication, an audience that could deal with the variety of contemporary developments. Today's surveys aren't really surveys at all, they're more like quickie summaries. Museumgoers may feel less overwhelmed, but from the artist's point of view the result is that there are far more artists jockeying for far fewer places. And this means that there's less chance of an artist's work getting to the public. The new surveys are a big lie, snow jobs that distance the audience from what's really going on.
    The changes in survey shows are only one sign of the increasingly restricted opportunities open to those artists who are determined to follow their own lights and create work that does not fit easily with the art world's formulaic expectations. Another problem is the art magazines, which have in the past twenty years largely abandoned their old job of reporting what goes on in the galleries and instead have become publicity machines for art stars and art star wannabes. In the '50s and '60s any artist who managed to have a show in New York City was virtually guaranteed at least a brief review. Most reviews at that time were really substantial; they really delved into the work. They were written by amazingly astute critics, such as the artists Donald Judd, Sidney Tillim, and Fairfield Porter, and the poet James Schuyler. The importance of short reviews for the art community cannot be overestimated. They amount to a kind of written conversation about art, a reflection of the dialogue that's going on among the artists. Yet now, even with hundreds more galleries, fewer shows are reviewed than ever before.
    The art market, like any area of life in which large sums of money are at stake, has exerted a fascination practically forever, yet there has probably never been a time when the writers and curators and gallery owners who present art to the public have been so willing to allow content to dissolve into the marketing context. In the past decade, an extraordinary amount of attention, both in the art press and the mainstream media, has focused on the crazy prices paid for contemporary art at auctions and on the waiting lists at the blue-chip galleries. In the spring of 1999, works by contemporary artists, among them Robert Gober, went at auction for a number of prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This news has a fascination; but it also leaves a lot of people feeling distanced from contemporary art.
    Thirty years ago, collecting contemporary art was something that many educated people did, at least in a small way. If you couldn't afford the paintings, you might buy original graphics by Picasso and Matisse—not to mention works on paper by contemporary Americans. In fact, it is still possible to collect works of quality for a few thousand dollars. But the news of the immense prices that are being paid for works by Schnabel and Basquiat—and, now, Sherman and Gober—makes people believe that all art that's worth having is expensive. And that ties right into the deeper feeling that art no longer has a stand-alone impact, an impact that people can respond to irrespective of prices, labels, reputations. And so we're losing the old audience of sometime art collectors—the collectors of moderate means. The hype makes people feel that art is out of reach.
    Everywhere I look there are signs of diminishing opportunities for serious work to be seen and discussed. In an article in the Art Journal—published by the College Art Association, which is the professional organization for artists and art historians—the painter Philip Pearlstein has discussed a kind of censorship that is not often even recognized. Pearlstein tells of sitting on art panels at the NEA and other institutions where the basic assumption is that certain styles in which the public art world isn't interested can simply be excluded from consideration. Among the styles Pearlstein cites are various kinds of representational painting and what he calls traditional abstraction; types of work, in short, that are grounded in a belief in the stand-alone value of art. Grants, even small ones, have sustained many unconventional artists. But in recent years, most grant-giving processes have become hopelessly tied to the market values of the public art world.
    We live in a trickle-down art world. Whatever attention and support doesn't go to the art stars seems to go to their clones. Art teaching is dominated by the wannabes; and all they do is teach students to mimic art-star values, which is all they, the teachers, know how to do. What's going on in the art schools may be the most disastrous development of all. In the past forty years, the teaching of art in structured academic settings has helped sustain painting and sculpture in New York and the rest of the country. Far from being hiding places for failed artists, art departments have been places where artists who were too unconventional or independent to prosper in the marketplace have been able to sustain an art culture of their own. After the war, artists, among them Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, made Brooklyn College one of the country's great art departments. In the early '70s, when I was planning to be a painter, some schools still had that kind of generative power, notably the painting department of the Kansas City Art Institute, under the direction of Wilbur Niewald, and the Graduate Program of Queens College, where Louis Finkelstein, Rosemarie Beck, and Gabriel Laderman, among others, were all teaching.
    As late as the '70s, the academic network, the grant-giving network, and the gallery network were functioning much as they had in the '50s, and in some cases functioning better than they ever had before. In the '80s, however, every aspect of the art world began to feel the pressure of the market, for there seemed to be fewer and fewer people who believed that what commanded high prices might not be more or less synonymous with what was good. University administrators became all too conscious of the public art world, and they began to expect their departments to reflect public art world values. Something in the ineffable mix of art and glamour that had attracted Wall Street to SoHo in the first place had an equally strong impact on academics and other intellectuals who have little, financially speaking, to gain. The academics, who are more often than not inclined to think contextually, didn't want to be excluded from the party. The party was in full swing in SoHo in the early '80s. Then Warholism and Reaganomics fell into bed together. Then their love child, Robert Mapplethorpe, was transformed from a clever aesthete into a martyr at the altar of political art. And once all this had happened, nobody could tell any longer where market pressures left off and the pressures of political correctness began.
    The Left might have been expected to approach a booming art market with a certain degree of skepticism, but in recent years this does not seem, by and large, to have been the case. For those who are inclined to see artistic vision as essentially grounded in economic or social factors, the ever-growing power of the market is so perfectly logical a development that it can inspire glee as easily as dismay. Warhol may be regarded by Leftist scholars as a kind of demonic figure, but they can hardly help feeling that he's just the demon the story needed. In the early '80s, when Warhol filled canvases with nothing but dollar signs, he gave these art historians the perfect finish to all their studies of the rise of the market. And the market itself can begin to look like a radical force a force that explodes what many are inclined to believe is an antiquated idea of the artist as an individual.
    In the '70s and early '80s an artist painting small landscapes or abstractions would have been told by dealers that what the money people wanted wasn't "just another" landscape or abstraction, no matter how good. By the late '80s that same artist—if that artist happened to be a woman—would be told by many critics that she had no right to paint in a traditional genre because those genres were male-dominated. For intellectuals who were basically familiar with nothing but public art world values, the economic rationale and the political rationale began to converge. It doesn't seem to matter that we are living in a period when, for the first time in history, women are making the high-art traditions absolutely their own and proving in the process that tradition is gender blind. The bottom line is that the whole structure that has sustained art in this country has come to be dominated by public art world values—that is, by market-driven art. The artists who are committed remain, but they are frighteningly isolated.

The Deal Makers

As the '90s got underway, the Wall Street money that had fueled the art orgy of the '80s evaporated. From all sides there were announcements that the unholy marriage of Warholism and Reaganomics that had set the art world spinning had collapsed. Art hype, many imagined, was a thing of the past. Auction prices plummeted, and galleries that had only recently opened their doors were closing. This, at least, is the story that is generally told. It is accurate in some of its specifics: the unsold auction lots, the collapsing real estate values. But those who imagined that the insane expectations of the '80s—art as a fix, as an ever-changing decor—would die along with Drexel Burnham Lambert were totally mistaken. It was simply impossible that reputations on which so much attention had been lavished would be allowed to disappear. The people who hype art still believe that the hype makes sense. One of the most depressing developments of the '90s has been the insistence with which reputations that not even the trendies care about are pointlessly sustained. Who any longer gives a damn about Haim Steinbach's shelves lined with buyables? Yet the work is still reviewed in the New York Times. To do otherwise would be to reveal that the emperors of the '80s never had any clothes.

    In the '80s a lot of people would have said that we were living in the Age of the Art Stars. As for the '90s, I think we'd probably have to call this the Age of the Deal Makers. This is the apotheosis of context, the final annihilation of content. Of course the deals are often designed to keep the art stars' reputations alive. The deal makers include some commercial dealers, along with some curators, some museum directors, and some collectors—who not infrequently double as museum trustees. But the individuals—and this is the key to understanding the Age of the Deal Makers—are less significant than the synergy between the players. The deal maker isn't in the business of making judgments about art. These people may represent the ultimate triumph of the public art world in that they couldn't care less what artists think or feel or do in the privacy of their studios. Deal makers approach artists and art in the same spirit that they approach museums, galleries, collectors, curators, and critics. For the deal maker, nobody and no thing has a freestanding value; there is no such thing as an artist's imagination. If you're a deal maker, you will find an artist's work interesting because you think it will look good in a certain space; you want to fill the space so you can get
(C) 2000 Jed Perl All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-465-05520-6


ian warburton said...

Thanks for pointing out that piece. I have read some interesting observations in the now defunct (though I think a less erudite version exists) Modern Painters.
I have done nothing for weeks and am on the point of stopping entirely so it is interesting that this should pop up now. regards , ian.

Sharon Knettell said...


The whole state of contemporary art have left those of us in what I like to call an honest pursuit of beauty in complete despair.

I love putting paint on canvas, and the transcendent feel holding a brush in my hands, and I am reduced sometimes to tears at the futility of painting now.

I think I paint at times, because I do not what those who paint and buy swill to rob me of the joy that is left to me in the rest of my days.

Sharon Knettell said...
Jed Perl's latest book.
A good read.

Perhaps this state of the arts is like the Berlin Wall- seemingly impenetrable but collapsing with astonishing rapidity.

Love the honesty of your portraits.

ian warburton said...

Sharon, I'm going to tell you that the last twelve months or so have had me going down a rabbit hole, burning paintings and drawings, lining up others for the same fate, painting over stuff until going into my shed had to stop. I wrote things on my blog which didn't tally with the yawning hole that faced me everyday. I didn't get that I didn't get what was held up to me as good work. I was encouraged that another artist asked me to share a slot on her blog but it was short lived and like so many others who have just given up I accepted that this is the only thing to do because if one continually falls short of making something that feels it might be getting somewhere maybe it is time to quit. I've been doing this fifty years now and haven't achieved much at all. I do see peoples work and wonder how on earth they do it; sometimes why on earth, and I guess I have been avoiding asking myself the same question until now. It's a bad place to be: my wife is so upset because she wonders who I will be if I never make work again and I don't know the answer. Two books arrived out of the blue, John Berger, Hold Everything Dear and Lisla by Robert M Persig. I'm looking for clues, branches, straws perhaps. A voice tells me to go back in there but I have just lost it - I am not alone in this; I know that. If you can delete this then do.

Sharon Knettell said...

Painting is like going down an Alice hole without a clue as to what is at the bottom. It is a defiant act in the face of nihilism. I am afraid of death so I paint. It has occurred to me that mostly everyone around me is afraid of death, we are in essence all in the meme bateau. This small realization helps a bit to take the singularity out of my suffering.

For many people there is religion-I practiced Buddhism for a long while but it still did not create a reason to paint nor accept death.

I have been clutching at the same straws and reading books late into the night to solve the dilemma of being an artist in an age where no one has use for what I do.

What inspired those countless artists in eras where the artist was not known or singled out to produce works of staggering beauty and meaning?

If my model did not show up, I would sit and brood.

I just read Robert Hughes review of a Manet show. Apparently he had contracted syphilis at birth from his father. He was very ill for many years, worked in pain and died an excruciating death. Knowing he was dying he managed his last masterpiece "The Bar at the Folies Bergere" He was wealthy so he could paint- but he sold very few works- I am sure you know this but his story is one that is a help to me.

No you are not alone.

Sharon Knettell said...

PS my husband is my enabler.