Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Roberta Smith arthoodicates 1980s painting for the New York Times by pretending not to

Left, Kathe Burkhart’s painting Prick: From the Liz Taylor Series (Suddenly Last Summer), from 1987, reprises a movie scene with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Right, Baron Sinister from 1986, by Walter Robinson (New York Times)

aLfrEdo tRifF

In a previous post I ask this question.

Then I read Roberta Smith's fresh from the oven Painting From the 1980s, When Brash Met Flash, now at the Whitney Museum.

Her swift opening is a bit formulaic, between name dropping, chronology & normativity:
In New York at the end of the 1970s, many people thought painting was all washed up. And if not washed up, it had to be abstract —the more austere, unemotional and geometric, the better. Then came the 1980s and a generation of young painters, like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and everything changed. With “Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s,” an irresistible if flawed exhibition, the Whitney Museum tries to sort out how that happened.
"... irresistible if flawed exhibition," peculiar conditional. Keep in mind "irresistible". I'll come to this later.

Why flawed?
In a sense, the painting that emerged in the early ’80s was mongrel and illegitimate. In logical art-historical terms, it wasn’t supposed to happen. The much-heralded Pictures Generation, a group of photo-based nonpainters, could trace its pedigree to 1970s Conceptual and performance art, and promised an orderly succession. But this divide is often exaggerated: I can imagine painters like Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Fischl thinking, if the Conceptual and performance artists, and their Pictures Generation progeny, can use figures and tell stories, we can, too.
This declaration follows,

... the painting that emerged in the early '80s was mongrel and illegitimate."

Mongrel, yes, illegitimate? No way.

Illegitimate" presupposes something "legitimate" to be compared against. And what would that be?

The 1980s painting was as legit a movement as one could possibly have, advocated and supported by the art system, i.e., artists, dealers, critics, collectors, art magazines and museums. In fact, from 1979 to 1985 Neo-Expressionism was the thing.

Is "legitimate" not that which is sanctioned by the likes of Smith? (unless she is ready to admit they were wrong —my point is double entendre).

Better yet, is Smith so oblivious not to see that her very article for the New York Times is the top of legitimation? Unless she denies her 1980s peer critics and curators the legitimation she's buttressing right now.

At miami bourbaki we take words written as behavioral dispositions. Like behaviors, words can be analyzed. Individual's intentions on the other hand are private, inaccessible, subject to mongrel associations and disconnections. 

And Smith is a bit disconnected from her own words. Which explains this,

... it wasn't supposed to happen.

The 1980s already happened. And it had to happen with everything in it, including Reagan, Punk, the Mariel Boat lift, the War on Drugs, Heavy Metal, Gorbachev's Perestroika, the Commodore 64, Madonna,  and yes, 1980s Painting.

History cannot express regrets because whatever happens is necessary. Painting in the 1980s—whatever that means—can always be traced back to the socio-political and economic vortex of the 80s.

Who in her right mind would blame the marionette for a poor marionette performance?

Eric Fischl, A Visit To /A Visit From the Island, 1983

The answer to Smith's discomfort with 1980s painting can be traced back to this 1987 review for the New York Times. Here she defends a brief movement in late 70s early 80s labeled as "New Image Painting," which is eclipsed by the sudden arrival of,
... neo-expressionism, an art movement, whose combinations of exuberant brushwork and provocative figures generated a glamorous amount of controversy, international attention and market support. 
Back in 1987 Smith dismisses Neo Expressionism as non-inherently American, which she contrasts with the "New Imagists." You can tell who wins her favor:
There is something inherently American —austere, rational and a little puritanical
—about the New Imagists' stark, tissue-thin silhouettes and their methodically made surfaces, as well as their belief in progress. This Americanness made their work seem out of step during the more European-influenced heyday of Neo-expressionism, but now, things are different.  
Now we understand Smith's "it wasn't supposed to happen" (above) and her general unease with this assignment. She is writing about a movement she never felt for. So, why do it?

She gets to be a part of the new art trend!*

In researching Smith's output for this period, one finds a disregard for the 1980s as a juncture which defines the late-Twentieth and subsequently early Twenty-First Century global art market. This avoidance of understanding market forces in art making is not necessarily new to the 1980s, though is no secret that critical main-stream writing in the 1970s was still quite embroiled in formalist battles—a result of the late-vanguard American conceptual movements on the mid 1960s.

Let's compare Smith's version with art historian and critic Irving Sandler's account of the 1980s in his Art of the Post Modern Era:
Art-world attention in the late 1980s was focused on the burgeoning art market. If it seemed to be mushrooming in the early and middle years of the decade, that was nothing compared with the boom that began in 1987. In 1979-80, only fourteen postwar paintings sold for $1 million or more at Christie's and Sotheby's; in 1987-88, the figure rocketed to $121. In the same season, the two auction houses together sold over $3 billion worth of art. Robert Hughes cautioned that art prices had gotten so high that the market could easily go bust. (p. 519)
Smith seem to gloss over the art market's shaping effect during the 1980s.
For a long time, that seemed to be the case. Over the last quarter-century, ’80s painting has tended to be ignored, if not maligned for the macho persona projected by some of its practitioners, and for reheating the art market after the relatively quiet, supposedly pure ’70s.
Observe the critic's flair for the superficial: The 1980s is about stardom, gloss & macho posturing (a stereotypical parade of gossipy insiders)
The Neo-Expressionists were an instant hit. The phrases “art star” “sellout show” and “waiting list” gained wide usage, sometimes linked to artists you’d barely heard of. Appearances in glossy magazines became routine. And many people were not happy. The Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd wrote that “talent may strike” Mr. Salle and that Mr. Schnabel “may grow up.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a leading art theorist, labeled them “ciphers of regression” —insignificant, backward daubers who would soon disappear.
If you want to critique the moment, why not talk of the market fever of this period? The money flowing to Wall Street by the effects of Reaganomics, the strong Japanese yen pushing aggressively the auction houses, instigating a secondary market of speculation —as opposed to the so called primary market of artists, galleries and collectors.

What needs to be addressed is the '80s boom from its economic side.

The 1980s signal the beginning of the gap between the rich and middle class. The move from late-industrial to financial capitalism was accelerated by technology, which increased the demand for skilled workers relative to their supply, with freer trade reinforcing the effect. Then comes the institutional of economy-driving-public policy: deregulation, and the weakening of unions.

Francesco Clemente, Scissors and Butterflies, (1980s)

Neoexpressionism was a global movement (scroll down to the countries and artists in this Wikipedia article), with very strong exponents in Italy (Transavanguardia) and Germany.

Let's come back to Sandler's behind-the-scenes approach:
In the late 1980s, the new German painting had become so familiar and had come to include so many patently mediocre followers that the promotion on its behalf backfired. The New York art world was taken aback by the quantity of mannerist German painting in the BerlinArt, curated by Kynaston McShine at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987. This glut was even more fully exposed in the Refigured Painting at the Guggenheim Museum in 1989. (p. 451)
Michael Brenson 1986 article Is Neo Expressionism An Idea Whose Time Has Passed for the New York Times paints a much more complex picture. An alert witness, he provides a rich and tentative picture of the events —as they unfold. He is keen in pointing the emergence and decline of Neo Expressionism as much more than just egos and entertainment. Brenson makes a point that Smith's article overlooks: institutional complicity.
Just as serious as questions about dealers and artists involved with Neo-Expressionism are the questions about museums. These institutions have reached a point, at least in New York, where they are almost incapable of providing any guidance or direction. What does it mean when museums just about trample each other on the way to the same young artists studios and when they do not offer the public a perspective that could clarify what the rush is all about?
The rush, the rush, this is what contemporary art is about!

At Miami Bourbaki, we refer to this contemporary art rush as arthoodication, the art of profiting while appearing almost—prudently— beneficent.

How does it work?

By exhibiting art/commodities, by transforming such art/commodities from "unknown" or "forgotten" to "highly desirable," with art publicity campaigns (what we call artblicity).

Georg Baselitz, Self Portrait I, 1980s

This is precisely what Smith does (perhaps reluctantly) here.

Which brings us to Smith's use of "irresistible" (above). Her use of the adjective is the equivalent of a Freudian Versprecher (you say what you don't mean).

(time to unveil the marionette)

Does Smith realize that she is the chosen one to bring back the 1980s from 30 years of market oblivion as the next thing?

(here comes the puppeteer)

Smith follows the lead from the curator in charge of the fulsomeness, & the apparatus behind the effort, which mobilizes other curators, collectors, dealers, and at least a museum director.

Ready to follow the system's artblicity?

The Whitney Revisits the '80s, a Decade of Macho and Money. —The New York Times

The powerful excitement of the decade has been languishing in a blind spot of art history. An exhibit at the Whitney comes to the rescue.The New Yorker 

An absorbing group show that brings together about 40 paintings by as many artists. —WNYC

A show of 1980s American painting at the Whitney Museum includes serious and playful meditations on sexuality, AIDS, wealth, and politics. —The Daily Beast

Plus more at Timeout,  Intelligence Magazine,  Cultivating Culture,  Hyperallergic and so on,

(yeap, the same artblicity that back in the day legitimized the 1980s painting generation)

There is always a price to pay. In the end, Smith's nonchalant attitude toward history —particularly the 1980s— makes her article on the 1980s painting as superficial as frosting.

* When it comes to history, Smith is willfully redundant. Here's a Smith quotable (scroll all the way down the article):  ... history is always in flux. Each rewriting, like each writing, will be reworked by subsequent generations. 

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