IMPURE THOUGHTS: THE ART OF SAM DURANT.
THE SUMMER OF LOVE GAME LATE TO THE VINEYARD. WHEN IT DID, IT HIT HARD. That summer Ali MacGraw died in Ryan O'Neal's arms after warming his cold, preppy heart ("Love means never having to say you're sorry"). Our local bard, James Taylor, told us we had a friend, and we believed him. Sitting cross-legged at a free concert, joints aflame all around us, we savored Sweet Baby James's romantic baritone and sincere words. That summer the hippies took over the beaches. Their insouciance offended our Eisenhower-era parents, who vainly shielded our eyes from unsightly penises and breasts. Though we pretended to be grossed our and giggled a lot, we were fascinated: To the children of the '60S the hippies were mythic creatures.
In those days kids hitchhiked around the island all day long. Though no more than seven or eight years old, we often placed ourselves in strangers' hands. One day an old VW microbus pulled over. Flower girls in granny dresses. Driver with Jesus hair. "Come on in!" Everyone going to the beach. Soon the van stops, and stops again, picking up new passengers and letting others off. Jesus always has more room. The ride is incredibly slow, but that's the point, isn't it? We're all in this together.
It's hard to say when the hitchhiking stopped. There was the foggy night in the '70S when some teenagers got run over. Now, you think that's Ted Bundy out there waiting to get in. Nobody stops for anyone anymore.
Partially Buried 1960s/70s: Utopia Reflected, Dystopia Revealed, 1998, an installation by Sam Durant, consists of two sheets of mirrored glass laid flat on the floor. The mirrors are covered with dirt, mimicking Robert Smithson's 1969 rock-salt and mirror Non-Sites. But the electric cords connected to tape recorders buried in the loam reveal that this isn't a Smithson at all. The first tape is of Wavy Gravy, a fellow traveler of the Diggers, the counterculture collective that distributed food for free during the '60s, speaking to the crowd at Woodstock. In Michael Wadleigh's film of the concert, Wavy is the picture of generosity. An aw-shucks kinda guy. Nobody had expected such a massive crowd; the local merchants were unprepared for the swarms of teenagers who arrived. Yet despite these problems it seemed to be working: People were getting along. Wavy's gravelly voice, emanating from the dirt, is reassuring though distant: "You've been really really groovy, and you're making the scene."
The second tape is of Mick Jagger at Altamont, the "West Coast Woodstock," held at the Altamont Speedway in Tracy, California, in 1969. It's the festival's most famous moment, the culminating scene in the Maysles brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter. The strung-out crowd is pushing aggressively toward the stage. The Hell's Angels, hired as bodyguards, have been beating up fans, even the musicians who were performing, since the moment the concert began. It's a hysterical situation--a disaster. Nothing to be done. Mick, always the coolest, sounds scared:
Why are we fighting?! Why are we fighting?! We don't want to fight! Come on! Who wants to fight? Every other scene has been cool [ldots] Let's just get it together! [ldots] Everyone--Hell's Angels, everybody, let's just keep ourselves together.
Shortly after Jagger's plea, one of the concertgoers, Meredith Hunter, brandishing a gun, was beaten and stabbed to death by one of the Angels during a rendition of "Under My Thumb." Three other people died at Altamont that day: Two fans were run over; another, high on LSD, jumped into an aqueduct.
The contrast between Woodstock and Altamont is one of the enduring myths of the '60s. In the Catskills, we are told, the counterculture triumphed; in California it spun out of control. Wavy's heaven became Mick's nightmare. In his remarkable memoir, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, describes the West Coast festival as "the famous collectivity of a generation cracking into thousands of shards." The deaths at Altamont--as well as the Manson murders, the Weathermen bombings, the execution of Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, etc.--represent the meltdown of the era's high-minded ideals; by the end of the '60s, anarchy and cruelty ruled the day.
Durant's vision of the decade is more distant and far less earnest. Only seven in 1969, the artist harbors a perverse fascination for the notorious concert. The Altamont he knows is an utterly mediated Altamont, the concert as depicted in the Maysles film, in Rolling Stones lore, and in histories of the '60s, a myth that is intertwined with the myth of Woodstock. It is this construction that Partially Buried 1960s/70s builds upon. Literalizing the cliche of Woodstock as utopia and Altamont as dystopia, the two tapes and identical mirrors suggest that the concerts were of a piece. Rather than an aberration or betrayal of '60s ideals, Altamont becomes the entropic fulfillment of that epoch's lofty expectations: For every Martin Luther King there was a Charles Manson; for every Wavy, an Angel wielding a knife. Durant's dissection of the Woodstock/Altamont myth is the demonstration of a basic structural logic. The antinomies of harmony/chaos, utopia/dystopia, refinement/vulgarity, hygiene/filth pervade the artis t's impure aesthetic. Rather than privilege one term or the other, his practice explores the dialectical relationship of the two, the entropic collapse of one state into another.
Think of Smithson's famous image of a sandbox divided in two, one half containing white sand, the other black. A child runs around and around in the box, blurring the discrete parts. The sand becomes gray and impure. A mess.
DURANT IS PART OF A GENERATION OF ARTISTS WHOSE EARLIEST memories are of the '60s and the first part of the '70s. Born too late to have participated in the era's signal events (of which they have only fragmentary recollections), these artists wear their belatedness on their sleeves. Their knowledge of the period is unconscious, secondhand, and above all, mediated; unable to recall the assassinations of JFK or RFK, they know these and other events through the accounts of their parents, PBS documentaries and miniseries, and Oliver Stone's sensationalizations. Having missed "Primary Structures," "Information," and Woman House, they are nevertheless embarrassingly intimate with yellowed copies of Avalanche and Heresies. Obsessively recycling the imagery and myths of those years, their work bears the mark of an extreme self-consciousness. Matthew Antezzo 's paintings after photos of postminimal installations and ephemeral performances; Renee Green's "search" for Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed and Tom Burr's resuscitation of the Smithson Non-Site; Andrea Fraser's development of a Service Art informed by the 1969 debates of the Art Workers Coalition; Kerry James Marshall's elegies to the Civil Rights Movement; Christian Philipp Muller's De Maria/Beuys "Tightrope" walk at Documenta X; and Christopher Williams's Bouquet (for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D'Arcangelo): These are among a number of projects that have turned a retrospective gaze toward the radical legacies of a fabled recent past.
The impact of the '60s and '70s is not reducible to formal influence, though certainly much current work rehearses to varying degrees the vocabulary of postminimalism, language-and photo-Conceptualism, and incipient performance and installation. Rather, my concern is the fascination that "the '60s" exerts on the contemporary imagination. At a time when we are told that "beauty is back" and that critique is a bore, the radical practices of the decade suggest an alternative legacy for thoughtful younger artists. However, to remember the '60s-to remember a time one did not oneself experience fully, if at all--poses certain risks. Walter Benjamin, who spent his final years reconstructing Haussmanian Paris, warned of the "indolence of the heart" that nostalgia for another time, imagined to be more authentic or intensely felt, can produce in those who come afterward. Durant's comment that during the '6os "experience was sharper," that "things mattered more," certainly smacks of nostalgia. But rather than romantici ze the past, his work examines the nature of this longing; he doesn't mourn the death of '60s ideals, but investigates what those ideals were and how they may have gone awry. Suspicious of firsthand, "the way it was" narratives, his work treats these accounts as representations that warrant reflection and critique.
Durant's encounter with the '60s grew out of his previous work on the discourses of modernist architecture. His early drawing 3 Rules of Plumbing, 1992, sets up two opposed lists: the rules of modernism and the plumber's credo. The modernist "rules" of clarity, unity, and honesty recall the early-twentieth-century writings of Adolf Loos, who in "Ornament and Crime" associates white geometric form with hygiene and socialist ideals, and ornament, a category that includes graffiti, with degeneracy. Loos's essay "Plumbers" addresses the salutary social effects of modern waste disposal. His hero is that "pioneer of cleanliness" whom he describes as the "officer for civilization." Durant's plumber thumbs his nose at Loosian high-mindedness. His humor is of the scatological variety; his vocabulary is vulgar. Rule No. I: "Shit rolls downhill." Rule No. 3: "Don't lick your fingers."
Durant's 1995 series of architectural models based on the Case Study Houses of Los Angeles extend 3 Rules of Plumbing's impure dialectic. Conceived as prototypes for affordable housing, the Case Study Houses, commissioned by the Southern California-based magazine Arts and Architecture from 1945 to 1962 and designed by the likes of Richard Neutra and Charles Eames, were eventually built for well-heeled clients in Brentwood and Hollywood Hills. Cheap renditions of the glass-and-steel originals, Durant's models are executed in cardboard and foam core and displayed on flimsy tables. One is covered with graffiti, in contradiction to Loos's prescriptions. Humorous photo-collages
based on the houses also mock their high-modernist intentions. Biker chicks appear topless or moon the camera; beer-bong drinkers and cheap do-it-yourself furniture degrade the "less is more" interiors with signifiers of excess and vulgarity.
No one took greater delight in unsettling modernist notions of purity than Robert Smithson. While the modernist aesthetics of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried relegate the artwork to a purely aesthetic realm, Smithson's Non-Sites point back to the site from which the minerals have been removed, aligning the categories of art and non-art, or the ideal and the real, into a dynamic relation that undermines the discrete identity of each, which modernism sought to uphold. Smithson's earthworks--for example, Spiral Jetty, 1970, or Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970--transformed this schema into a dynamic entropic process: a perversion of one term by the other, as in the mixing of the two sides of the sandbox, or the desecration of the man-made by nature and vice versa. Smithson's 1973 essay "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape" describes Central Park as a gigantic earthwork whose ideal picturesque conception is at the mercy of entropic forces. A graceful bridge is shown to be embedded in mud; a whi te wall is defaced with graffiti. Durant's dialectic of impurity is indeed Smithsonesque; one can imagine Smithson's amusement at Durant's Reflected Upside-down and Backwards, 1999, for example, which consists of two identical, stacked scale models of Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed constructed to resemble the original shed. The model on top is burnt to a crisp; the model below is brand new.
Durant traces the penetration of an entropic logic throughout the culture; in this way his practice also recalls Smithson's. The first meaning of entropy for Smithson is that described by the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that it is the nature of matter to break down, to come to a state of rest. Yet entropy was as much a cultural metaphor for Smithson as a physical process, denoting the perversion of high culture by kitsch, for example. Among the artists engaged in the current "Smithson revival," it is Durant who most identifies with the camp or "pop" Smithson--the Smithson who hung out in the back room at Max's with Warhol, who in the 1966 essay "Entropy and the New Monuments" celebrated bad horror films and the sleazy movie palaces of Forty-second Street. Durant's series of drawings after works by Smithson include captions with entropic or scatological themes. Mirrored, reversed, and bizarrely juxtaposed, the texts connect the high-art practices of postminimalism and earthworks to low or popula r culture. A rendition of Smithson's Glue Pour, 1969, a tin of sticky glue trickling down a hill with the caption "sugar covered how come you taste so good horizontal '69," juxtaposes a well-known demonstration of entropy as a horizontal state of equilibrium with a line from "Brown Sugar," the Stones's grotesque paean to the charms of black girls and heroin. A famous shot of Partially Buried Woodshed appears with the vulgarly literal "Gimme Shelter" or the scatological titles from the 1972. Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street ("Turd on the Run," "Stop Breaking Down," and "Let It Loose"), bearing out Smithson's notion of entropy as a pervasive cultural logic.
Durant's Smithson is not only an artist whose work is about entropy. As Durant implies, Smithson himself has become an entropic figure--an emblem of the collapse of countercultural ambitions during the '60s and early '70S. His untimely death in 1973 identifies him with the "death culture" of those years, in which the names Eva Hesse, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix also figure. Durant's drawings of Smithson are depictions of the construction "Robert Smithson" that has taken on mythic proportions in the last decade. As Durant suggests, Smithson's death is inextricably linked with present-day fantasies of the '60s. Here is a portrait of the artist with the caption "Altamont 1969." Here is a combined image of Smithson and the Rolling Stones with a line lifted from a Neil Young song: "It's better to burn out than fade away." (The model extends to the present; this line was reportedly quoted in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain, who also appears in Durant's "Smithson" constructions. ) Here is a photograph of a miniature, brand-new Woodshed draped with models in period bell-bottoms and T-shirts, whose supine bodies mimic the contours of the dirt dumped on the shed by Smithson until its central beam cracked (initiating the shed's breakdown). Their bodies also recall period images of the four antiwar protesters killed at Kent State shortly after Smithson completed Woodshed on the campus, who themselves entered the collective imagination as the martyrs of the Neil Young ballad "Ohio."
Though accidental, Smithson's death, like those of Hesse, Matta-Clark, and Bas Jan Ader, affirms a romantic cliche of the '60s as a period of mortal risk and heroic sacrifice, which Smithson, one suspects, would find highly amusing. The figure of the tragic artist who gave all for his or her art is appealing, playing into the nagging suspicion that our culture is a simulacrum of another more real our own and confirming Smithson's entropic prediction of the triumph of the spectacle over high art, or inauthenticity over authenticity. Durant's examination of this and similiar constructions of the '60s and '70s is not a "revival"; nor is it art history. Troping avant-garde strategies devised during that time, his work explores the uses and reuses of the '60s, as well as the psychic after-effects of that era on those who, like Durant himself, were not really there to experience it.
James Meyer's history of Minimalism is forthcoming from Yale University Press.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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