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Still More on Art and Artists


Blog: Still More On Art and Artists

This is the third blog on Art and Artists, and I now contemplate even writing a fourth. Why doesn’t he just write a long publishable article, you may be wondering, or even a book? Answer: because my thoughts and reminiscences and opinions aren’t organized or authoritative enough to merit that--they are more blog-like, that is. (How strange that I’ve lived long enough to be able to write that without cringing!) As before, I’ll warn that I may well be repeating a few incidents or observations from the earlier two. But mostly it will be new, and will touch on matters that have been important in my life, and that I hope will strike responsive chords in others.

This one will be mostly about artists, and kinds of artists, whom I’ve admired, and whose works I’ve deliberately spent serious time with, during my long career. I don’t mean to include the many Chinese painters I’ve known and for whom I’ve written catalog essays etc.--I’ll devote a few video-lectures to them. I mean only Western, and mostly American, artists, most of them painters, whose works I’ve liked--and a few I’ve disliked-- with attempts to formulate the reasons why or why not.

I’ll start out, as before, with an excerpt from an email communication, this one to David Carrier. He’s an art critic and theorist living in Cleveland--I’ve never met him in person, only communicated with him, but lots of that. He spent a year in China and was introduced to me by Freda Murck. Recently he wrote me while traveling in China again, and our communications livened up. I wrote this in one of mine (I’ve expanded it slightly):

Dear David,

On one point I should correct you: you write that you can see why I don’t like contemporary art. But I’m not down on contemporary art as a whole, even to the degree that Gombrich was. I was deeply engaged with Abstract Expressionism while it was happening, moved by Franz Kline, spent lots of time in a Rothko exhibition at the Phillips
Gallery, etc. I read Harold Rosenberg a lot, disliked Clement Greenberg with his advocacy of the flat. I was also a fan of the Bay Area artists, especially Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown. If I had access to a Brice Marden retrospective I would go, and not leave quickly. And so forth--I spent a lot of time in a MOMA show of Picasso-Braque Cubism, quickly developing the eye for telling which was whose without reading labels, recognizing why P could do the push-pull thing with space in ways that B couldn’t touch. I even knew Ad Reinhardt (he used to spend time at Asia House Gallery, helped curate an exhibition!) although I looked on--and looked at--his solid-black painitings as more anomalous than absorbing.

What I can’t get seriously engaged with, and think of as a large part of “where it all went wrong,” is the “he-thought-of-it-first” kind of art that doesn’t produce art objects you can sensorily engage with. A recent article I read was about how artists of that kind hire others to make the tank and put the shark in it in formaldehyde, or fabricate the oversize plastic tiger, or whatever--their own job is only to have the clever idea, and for that, dumb rich people pay them millions. For them I have no respect--nor do I have any, with very few exceptions, for conceptual/environmental/installation/happenings art generally. When I became acting director of the University Art Museum in 1973, after watching the beginnings of that kind of stuff under Peter Selz’s directorship, I announced to the staff that we were going to hang a big sign from the highest balcony saying DOING DUMB THINGS AND CALLING IT ART IS OVER! They (led by Brenda Richardson, the vice-director, who had helped to get Peter retired and out--and who now is my good & respected friend) they talked me out of that; but the belief/attitude persists. I used to say in faculty meetings and elsewhere: if only someone had said, at the right moment, “Good joke, M.  Duchamps, a urinal exhibited as a sculpture, ha ha. Now let’s go back to making art,” instead of that grand collective “Oh wow!”, art of the twentieth century and beyond would be much different and (for me) a lot better.

So, there you have it. Just to set things right on that matter.

Best, Jim

The Princeton musicologist Edward Cone, whom I got to know well when he spent a year in Berkeley, published an article proposing that “art” of that kind might be disposed of if we could only take away from it the designation “art” and make the object/event make it on its own, without enjoying in its observors/participants that sense of awe that works of art command. Do we really want to sit still in the audience watching the pianist also sitting still for four minutes and 33 seconds, just because it’s billed as a musical composition (by John Cage)? No, of course we don’t. So: end of that. And so forth. But that would pull the rug out from under so many artists and their admirers that it won’t happen.

In the 1950s, when I was writing my dissertation and my Skira Chinese Painting book, I was caught up in the widespread

enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionism in American painting. I put together an elaborate argument, and delivered it in lectures here and there, about how Chinese painters had anticipated it by developing a theory of artistic expression, and a kind of painting based on it, in which the expressive content of the work became pretty much independent of what it pictured, deriving instead from the artist’s brushstrokes, from “gesture.”

I was especially fond of Franz Kline, was moved by Robert Motherwell’s “Elegies for the Spanish Republic,” and so forth. Later, I used to give two lectures every year in a World History series within the History Dept., one about what Chinese artists took from European pictorial art in the 16th-17th centuries, and in the other, pointing out “influence” in the opposite direction, for instance the importance of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy to the origins of Abstract Expressionism--how much Mark Tobey’s development of his early abstract “field” paintings depended on his learning about this in Japan, I think it was.

I can also write--but will do it only briefly--about artists whose works I disliked or even hated. We had a big Dan Flavin exhibition in our art museum, installations of new lighting installed all over; and one of his “works” was purchased for the Museum. It consisted of a strong light installed on the stairway leading to the basement; and it has, ever since, hurt my eyes when I walk downstairs. I remember complaining to David Ross, when he was Chief Curator: Does making it unpleasant for me to walk downstairs constitute a valid work of art? And he, of course, fell back on that all-purpose response to such criticism: Provoking that reaction in you is exactly his purpose, and makes this a successful work of art. An argument I still believe to be phony, a catch-all for “justifying” anything at all. (I got the same response to a criticism of Christo’s “Running Fence” at an Arts Club meeting.) I was also critical of most of the “works” in an exhibition of Jonathan Borovsky--I won’t take the time to describe what they were, but really dumb things--we still have his “Hammering Man,” which is just a boring thing (after the first few minutes), in our lower gallery.

I was certainly not critical or disapproving of all the shows of new art that Peter Selz organized during his tenure--some were exciting and absorbing. He had an early exhibition of kinetic sculpture--it was Peter who had installed the Jean Tinguely sculpture in the MOMA court that was supposed to destroy itself and didn’t. (See the funny parody of that in Arthur Penn’s early experimental film Mickey One.) Peter brought to the U.C. campus a wonderful show of the sculptures of Arnoldo Pomodoro, some of which were set around the green spaces on campus and attracted large numbers of fascinated viewers with their look of being remnants from a long-ago high-tech civilization. One of my favorite stories was of two little boys standing by one of them, in Faculty Glade, looking at it for a long time, and one of them asks the other: “Is it real?” What, I used to ask rhetorically, is the right answer to that? And Peter organized an exhibition of some sculptor, I forget his name, who made very realistic (3-D Chuck Close) figures of gallery-goers or pairs of them, dressed in real clothes, and set them around the galleries. This was so popular that people came in on weekends and planted themselves motionlessly against walls, challenging others to tell them from the sculptures.

I remember once sitting next to Wayne Thibaud, much of whose work I like, and talking with him about how non-art can turn easily into art--he painted pie slices for commercial signs before he did them as paintings. My example was how some Japanese tea-master, was it Sen no Rikyu, raised a poor rooftile-maker he observed working on the palace grounds and turned him into the first master of Raku teabowls.

Enough--or more than enough--for now. But, as I say, I may still have a fourth, about artists’ late periods and their tendency to go flat in their late works--to fail to achieve, that is, the effects of space to be seen in their earlier paintings.

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