December 1, 2016

The Coin

Last weekend, I first went to MoMA and saw the Picabia show, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction
Through March 19, 2017
, then I visited MetBreuer and saw the Kerry James Marshall retrospective, MASTRY. I felt fortunate to have seen them in sequence, each informed the other. The major critics in NYC are lauding both and justly so. Both artists have created bodies of work that are magisterial. But I have come away from seeing these shows with minuscule curlicues of critical praise and doubt that I have not read or heard elsewhere.

It's time to air them out.

Much has been made of the mercurial nature of Picabia's oeuvre. Moving in the historicizing sequence gallery to gallery at MoMA is one miraculous gestalt after another. Or seemingly so. It is either a fortune or misfortune to have seen the Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia exhibition in 2008 at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, the subject of a previous blog post. A misfortune, since I could not be as astonished as others seem to be at Picabia, the changeling. A fortune, since I could appreciate the threads that wound Picabia's body of work. From Jennifer Mundy's catalog introduction (page 11):

[...] at various points in their careers, the three artists responded to one another's ideas and innovations with works that echoed the interests of the other and in ways which were likely to to have been understood only by the other. That they were able to do this suggests that through discussions and close friendship they had mapped out a common intellectual territory and shared approaches to the formal and ontological questions about the nature of art that, at root, fueled their work. Would Picabia have developed a sexualized vocabulary of machine forms if it had not been for conversations with Duchamp about the meaning of the latter's Bride and 'chocolate grinder' in the Large Glass? Would he have toyed with optical themes without the example of his friend? And was his rebellious stance critical in Duchamp's decision to withdraw from the art world? Did both Duchamp and Picabia pay more attention to photography and cinema than they might otherwise have done because of their friendship with Man Ray? Would Picabia have produced his painting of a hanged glass window, or Man Ray his glass work Danger/Dancer, without Duchamp's Large Glass? [...] Would Man Ray have made his 'objects of affection' without the inspiration of the latter's 'readymades'? Did Man Ray's innovative use of doubled and solarized images affect Picabia's 'transparency' series of paintings? And did Picabia's erotic nudes of the early 1940's provide an impetus for Duchamp's last major work, Etan donnés?

If you bear in mind together with the description above, that both artists had initially tried to fit into the existing movements of late Impressionism and early Cubism, of how they were marginalized for generating what was perceived as stiff and clumsy examples of these theoretical factions, then much more could be gleaned from the array of paintings on display. Add to all of this, a particular libertine mindset. Today, we might call it Punk. It was once called Anarchism. It has existed in different guises since the dawn of mankind.

Jumping a half page further into Mundy's text (page 12):

The encounter with the more assured Picabia was a turning point in Duchamp's life. Independently wealthy in these years, Picabia could afford to turn his back on dealers and the market, and paint as he chose. The freedom of Picabia's lifestyle, his pleasure-seeking, irreverent and, at times, angry, approach to the art world, and above all his utter refusal to tow a party line or be told what to do, opened Duchamp's eyes. In an interview towards the end of his life with he critic Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp stressed that he had found Picabia's madcap lifestyle mesmerizing and his spirit 'amazing':
CABANNE: I have the impression that Picabia made you understand that the people you knew, at Puteux, were 'professional' painters, living that 'artistic life' which, at the time, you already didn't like, and which Picabia detested.
DUCHAMP: Probably. He had entry into a world I knew nothing of. In 1911-12, he went to smoke opium almost every night. It was a rare thing, even then.
CABANNE: He revealed to you a new idea of the artist.
DUCHAMP: Of men in general, a social milieu I knew nothing about, being a notary's son! Even if I never smoked opium with him. I knew that he drank enormously too.... Obviously, it opened up new horizons for me. And, because I was ready to welcome everything, I learned a lot from it.

Exactly what he learned, Duchamp never articulated, and Picabia - not one to look back or to focus self-consciously on his own development - never commented on his friendship with Duchamp beyond acknowledging its importance to him. But there was clearly an intellectual chemistry at work. Witness to their conversations, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia said strikingly that the two men 'emulated on another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all the foundations of life in general.' It seems that Picabia introduced Duchamp to the nineteenth-century German writer Max Stirner, author of The Ego and his Own (1844), who influenced the philosopher Nietzsche (also an important source of ideas to Picabia). Francis Naumann describes later in this volume, Stirner's extreme gospel of egoism based on the uniqueness of each individual and his consequent right to ignore the demands of society and of morality, had a profound and enduring impact on Duchamp's understanding of how he wished to live. Significantly, Man Ray was also exposed to these ideas as a young man - the art school he attended was a genre for anarchic teachings - and throughout his life insisted on his right to follow his own path, unconstrained by the idea of duty to the state or family.

(Hyperlink, mine)
Now, curiously, Picabia was a stubborn painter. Why? Gallery after gallery in MoMA are full of paintings. Surely, there are the traditional exceptions of prints, drawings and books. But Picabia stayed planted in painting even as he traded traditional oil paint for industrial enamel or flouted standard compositional methods. He didn't follow Duchamp into sculpture or hybrids of sculpture and painting as demonstrated by the Large Glass. He didn't buy camera equipment and tweak himself into the experiments that so fascinated Man Ray. He didn't instrumentalize his fascination with fast expensive cars into performance art even as he produced performance events for others. Could it be that his anarchic impulse folded into itself? Could it be that he rebelled against the rebellion that would take him away from painting as demonstrated by Duchamp so theatrically at the end of his career?

This takes me to Kerry James Marshall. Marshall graduated from the Otis Art School at the end of the 70's. By the dawn of the 80's, the art world had long absorbed the lesson of the trio of artists centered on Marcel Duchamp, the evergreen headline announcing the death of painting sprouted in this era. All of this, and still Marshall painted. I doubt that he wasn't exposed to whatever passed as Critical Theory in that time, all art schools in Southern California have been navigating according to the lights of the intellectual leadership of CalArts for decades. Take all of this in, and concentrate on the fact that Marshall remained a painter. Like Picabia, he persisted in painting even though the currents around him encouraged abandonment.

Yet, restlessness remains where a cynic would expect the reactionary complacency of persisting in the limited set of pigment+medium+support. Picabia's shifts follows the chapters of his life, his mind is dominated serially by the flow of conversation with his friends and towards the end, echoes of dialog long past. Channel surfing modes of painting, somewhat reminiscent of Gerhard Richter (among others, simultaneously streaming multiple art-form types is mainstream today), Marshall explores portraiture, allegorist tableaus, minimalist graphic work, photography, and abstraction. It seems to me that for Marshall, these modes are not in sequence, not chased to ground, but simultaneous.


In Marshall's oeuvre, the story of abstraction appeared to me to be intriguing, piquant, tinged with longing. The MetBreuer's wall texts informs us at the outset that Marshall received brutally negative reviews of his first exhibition of abstraction out of the gate from art school. The two small collages are shown in the second gallery seem to testify to this event, the sting of which propelled Marshall to make his mark with A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a figuration charged with the meaning special to Marshall, a caricature that cut to the quick. He proceeded to exploit this device throughout his career and he expanded it into among other forms, tableaus that compositionally used the visual language of comic books and lowbrow art forms (known in a stinging shorthand among my peers as Juxtapoz Art). For an artist coming of age in his era, such a recourse in search of strategies of figuration is no big surprise. Where else would a figurative artist look for inspiration and guidance? (Now, I'm thinking of Lari Pittman, Marshall's contemporaneous fellow traveller.)

Abstraction book-ends Marshall's retrospective. Is Marshall nursing a long lost desire to make non-objective painting? It certainly appears so. Such a long time of disconnection leaves a mark. It's like a reunion of a parent with a long lost child, the anticipated embrace betrays a lack, the loss of the entwining intervening years of contact and mutual growth, the challenge remains of a gulf yet to be forged. Two large colorful abstract paintings hang in the final gallery in the retrospective. The ham handedness of the earlier smaller collaged abstractions remains in the final paintings, but Marshall attempts to condition this with an argument for the resistance against the usual assumption of the virtue of spontaneity in Late Modern Abstraction. Marshall compositionally used a rigid bilateral symmetry, pointedly artificially emulating Rorschach inkblots. Seeing them, I thought of the control he used in his representational work, the splash and flick of paint in loyal service to figuration. It is as if the abstractions were indeed figures, and with their bilateral symmetry, they certainly could be considered to be such. They recalled for me Robert Rauschenberg's Factum 1 and Factum 2, an early Postmodern denial of Modernist freedom. Here we have two instances of picking up where one left off, one within the life of Marshall and one within the sixty year arc of Postmodernism.

In the final gallery of the Picabia retrospective at MoMA, another arc vaults even higher. The exhibition finishes with his dot paintings, near monochrome backgrounds figured minimally with small circles, or "points", as he called them. It is amazing to see in the sequence of galleries, an artist adopting an attitude, a worldview, and then shedding it for another. Room after room of paintings, persistent paintings, Picabia molts ideas again and again until we arrive at a butterfly of abstraction, as pure as abstraction could be at the dawn of the 1950's.

Influential art critics in NYC have been calling for young artists to select any aspect of Picabia's oeuvre and to make whole careers from them. But isn't this closing the barn door after the horse has already bolted? From Picabia's transparency paintings, David Salle and Sigmar Polke have exploited many possibilities. Again, from Jennifer Mundy's catalog introduction: "In the late 1940's, Picabia produced a series of paintings with dots, or 'points', on thickly repainted, monochromatic canvases. In their simplicity, these images represented a basic minimum of mark-making, a collapse of signification, and a triumphant assertion of the freedom of the aged artist to create art of his own devising, regardless of norms and conventions, painting over old pictures to create new works with what were in effect minimal gestures. The series was rooted in his early abstract and optical works but nonetheless recalled a famous early readymade by Duchamp of 1914 called Pharmacy- three lithographs of a wintery scene to which Duchamp simply added, with extreme economy, a red and a green dot [...]" (Hyperlink mine)

Can you see as I do, the signature and debt of John Baldessari? Underlying the formal aspect of Picabia's dot paintings, lies a philosophical attitude he called least effort. In the words of Picabia: "The least effort is essential if one is to remain joyous. It is precisely because we are weighty and serious men that nothing can do us as much good as the least effort, for we have need of a lively, childlike, happy art if we are not to lose the freedom that we value above everything, our ideals demands it". Can you see as I do the signature and debt of Raphael Rubinstein's Provisional Painting and later, Sharon Butler's "New Casualism"?

For all of the vaunted rebellion of the Postmodern epoch, I can clearly see -as I hope that you will too- that what we know as Modernism and Postmodernism was born as twins at the collapse of the Classical era. They developed simultaneously like the two sides of a single coin and nothing is new.

Nothing is new.

But perhaps the singularity of the coin of art is new to us today?

Posted by Dennis at December 1, 2016 3:38 PM


I like the connecting of threads from Picabia to Rubinstein.Have they (Butler and Rubinstein) done the homework themselves.I am indebted to Rubinstein for granting my Zombie label primacy over Robinson much to Robinson's chagrin.It was in an article in AiA that dealt with a French School of artists that focused on the substrate. I think there is a connection there to Hantai but I do not recall
Rubinstein talking about it.
Went to a Butler lecture in Portland Maine and got introduced as the coiner of ZF. In an email exchange with her I pointed out that it was smart of her to see herself as a casualist in that it created a dialectic with Modernism and allowed her work to be discussed by the art world. Outside of the dialectic one's work will not be talked about.

Ha! What a surprise to see that I already read this.Maybe there are further threads based on the email that Gibert-Rolfe sent to his colleague John Baldessari that Gilbert Rolfe kindly sent to me: Why Laura Owens is no longer part of this deconstructive heritage and no longer merits further discussion is Gilbert-Rolfe's point. The book I told you about by Paul Rodgers addresses the conflictual relationship between the state and avant-garde artists in the 19th and 20th c.The problem today is that we do not know whom to rebel against as we do not know clearly who the oppressor is.There is a quote somewhere from Groys that when the avant-garde is co-opted by the establishment what it produces is propaganda!

Here is the email: Laura Owens’ work always reminds me of Hallmark Christmas cards. Their composition is like Hallmark cards and they are always all the same size, so that there’s nothing specific about the size of the work and its relation to the viewer’s experience of scale as a result. I understand that these are qualities that people like, and while I find them boring others think them critically adorable. In a general way the work fits into Bruce Hainley’s critical method, which is a combination of early Barthes and the Hollywood Reporter, for example. From such perspectives it’s a good thing that the work offers no surprises to anyone interested in complication or for that matter the history of art and what is actually possible in that regard, that the work is very crudely made (like a duck with a hammer, quack quack bang bang) but that it still manages to be dead rather than lively. These are regarded as positive assaults on tradition, but I find them unconvincing.
From my point of view Laura’s work represents a retreat from inventiveness into an academic art of reference rather than experience, as far as Barthes goes it’s the ‘readerly’ as opposed to the ‘writerly,’ where the former is a philistine rejection of the latter. The heaviness of the work is of a kind found in a lot of work that is said to embody a world view which is not that of the while male, and as such it’s a cliché that can’t possibly do what it is said to do. That would be ok with me if it weren’t just heavy and inert. The only time Laura ever spoke directly to me it was to accuse me of not having paid sufficient attention to her work.

Leave a comment