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Jonathan Borofsky.

In 1982, a spectacularly meretricious exhibition of forty-odd hot artists was mounted in West Berlin under the depressingly exact title Zeitgeist. Housed in the war-scarred Martin-Gropius-Bau, an ornate neo-Renaissance relic of the nineteenth century, Zeitgeist cynically exploited the natural political symbolism of its locale. The shell-gouged facade of the Gropius-Bau faces the archetypically gray Eastern European edifices on the other side of the Berlin wall; it is separated from them by a desolate patch of weeds dotted by truncated columns and a headless statue. In an adjoining vacant lot, bleak as a flintscape by Beckett, a tattered sign in four languages marks the site of Gestapo torture chambers. Decades of wall-writers have scribbled subdued and diffident graffitti--both political and scatological--on the terrible periphery of the unholy city. The Brandenburg Gate is not far away; Checkpoint Charlie stands at about the same distance in the opposite direction. Under the shallow, glazed dome of the building's atrium, arrayed along the two-tiered colonnaded gallery, were hung and placed the art works being promoted by the show. The not very carefully concealed motive of the enterprise was to proclaim that contemporary European art, particularly West German art, was commercially viable and ready to compete with the work of the dominant hot Americans.

Art has always been a business, and successful artists have owed their success as much to acumen as to talent or even genius--think of Monet or Picasso--but what made Zeitgeist so rebarbative an enterprise was its cheerful appropriation of Germany's unspeakable political symbolism to reflect an unmerited importance on shallow art works. The artists themselves, nearly all members of the Neo-Expressionist fraternity, were characteristically lurid and brash, and their use of strident symbolisms in the interest of self-proclamation was a bench mark of the collective style. But the entrepreneurs of Zeitgeist raised all that to a power undreamed of by the artists, who began to look almost modest by comparison with their handlers. In the crass degradation of meaning, Zeitgeist passed from tastelessness into evil. It may even have left a queasy feeling in the normally strong stomach of the art world.

Of the ten Americans exhibited, the one who seemed most to rise to the occasion rather than exemplify it was Jonathan Borofsky. In that context his three works appeared powerfully symbolic. Hovering over the glass dome and thus visible from within the main court-yard, Borofsky had placed a huge silhouetted effigy of what looked like a salesman, with overcoat, soft hat and briefcase. Just outside a window on the second floor there was a figure of a flying man, ambiguous as to whether it was fleeing the exhibition or heading for East Berlin. Finally, painted on the wall itself, and leaving visible what I suppose was independently written graffitti (TRASH), was a figure, "Running Man," handsomely if primitively executed in gray with black hatching. Since they were situated outside the Gropius-Bau, all of these works might have been taken to express the wish to put some distance between the exhibit and themselves; and since each of them takes on, or appears to take on in that atmosphere, a political or even moral significance, it would have been difficult not to ascribe to Borofsky's work exactly the seriousness and weight flaunted by the exhibition itself.

So it is altogether surprising that the very images that carried so palpable a charge at Zeitgeist dissipate into frivolity when the appear in other contexts, such as Borofsky's current grand exposure at the Whitney Museum in New York City. (The show originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will go on to the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California, then to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and from there to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington next year.) Here "Running Man" dashes, like an acrylic streaker, past an enlarged and rather comical painting of "the Maidenform Woman" reviewing the troops in her greatcoat and lace underthings. The "Man with a Briefcase" stands blankly about like an aluminum cutout, and the little flying figure looks as through he has escaped nothing grimmer than FAO Schwarz--or at worst, Disneyland.

What this show, in contrast to Zeitgeist, makes plain is not that the same images carry different symbolic charges in different contexts, but that Borofsky's images refer us at best to one another and finally simply to the artist himself. The apparent meaning they conveyed at Zeitgeist was only an accident of juxtaposition, for the works are actually no more than recurrent elements in Borofsky's dreams, and like dream images they refer us to moments in the mental life of the dreamer. The show is simply the man himself, distributed through four vast rooms. Borofsky is the most confessional and autobiographical of contemporary artists, and his work, like his personality, must be taken as a whole. "All is One" is a phrase he often employs (he sometimes writes it in Persian) to impose unity on as heterogenous an assemblage of objects as one could imagine a single person capable of producing. "You are alone" is another Borofskyan phrase, part of a word painting, which has as its bottom line "there is no one to please but your [self]." What we have then is Jonathan Borofsky, alone, pleasing him [self]. It is less an exhibition than exhibitionism.

As an exhibitionist, whose philosophy is that all is one, Borofsky's steady impulse is to let it all hang up. (His first obtrusion into the general consciousness of the art world was an installation at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City in 1975, for which he literally emptied his studio.) "All is One" implies at least two attitudes. First, individual works are actual pieces, parts of a whole, pieces of Borofsky, thus dependent on the whole for what interest they may have. And second, one piece is as important as any other--"It's all one"--you happen to show. There is a spirit of egalitarian tolerance in Borofsky's periodic studio-sweeping to fill this gallery or that, any doodle counting for as much as one of his enormous "Hammering Men." There is naturally a question about how any of this gets sold, but it has long been clear that the true geniuses of the contemporary art world are the dealers, capable of extracting cold cash for what most of us would suppose was to be thrown away. In whatever way ths miracle of merchandising is transacted, Borofsky has clearly prospered, with larger and larger studios to empty into larger and larger spaces. He has reached the point where there is enough material to instill a dense disorder on the whole fourth floor of the Whitney.

One of the rooms is like a bulletin board, with pieces of paper--pages, sheets, scraps--pinned to the wall. If not clippings from newspapers, they are memorandums, jottings, doodles, sketches, calculations, plans, lists, all done on the most utilitarian paper--spiral notebook pages, cheap stationery, from-the-desk-of pads and the like. Some of them are actually interesting: a letter, for example, that the artist dreamed had been sent him by Salvador Dali. It reads: "Dear Jon, There is very little difference between the commonplace and the avant-grade. Yours truly, Salvador Dali." This was "done" in 1978, and I wish I had seen it then, since it corresponded to some thoughts about art I was working on at the time, which were published a few years later as The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. But it is not really part of Borofsky's intention to produce things more interesting than others. Referring to his first installation at the Cooper Gallery in 1975 he writes, "It represented my attitude that everything is good--there was no real selection process, or if there was, it was minimal." That show, the first in a series culminating in this one, "seemed to give people a feeling of being inside my mind."

In many ways it is, almost, a child's mind, if children are really as innocent as we used to like to believe. There are no erotic thoughts, or very few: even when his self-portraits are naked, there are no genitals, though in one drawing he carries a flute. There are a lot of dreams, mostly of the sort our children tell us in order to be comforted. "I'm walking the streets of some strange town with my mother. I hustle with my mother and a huge crowd into a supermarket for protection" is the subtitle of "Dream #1." He dreams he climbs a white mountain covered with electrical cables; that a man in a tower is being shot at; that he found a red ruby; that his father's tooth was bleeding; that he dog was walking a tightrope; that he could fly. Each dream is illustrated with an appropriate image or object. He thinks about the two sides of his personality--his male and female selves. When he thinks about politics, it is as a child would: "I dreamed that some Hitler-type person was not allowing everyone to roller skate in public places."

Mostly he likes to play. The initial impression of having wandered into an exuberant toyland is overwhelming. Everything seems to be moving. Five immense "Hammering Men," black and thin as shadows, raise and lower their mechanical arms in an endless silent Anvil Chorus. Against the ceiling, the light in a blue neon helix zips back and forth. Near the window "The Friendly Giant," sheathed in bubble wrapping, does pushups. Leaflets are strewn beneath him. The place looks as though a troop of naughty children had been given carte blanche, emptying baskets, tilting paintings, scribbling on walls, cutting pictures in half, playing with the TV and behaving, generally, like rowdy poltergeists. Random noises from four loudspeakers form an acoustical cascade. The dominating figure is a sort of dancing doll, with a large sentimental clown's head and a female body, its legs drawn into webbed panty-hose, wearing one pink ballet shoe and one blue one, to mark (perhaps) the male and female sides. The figure emits, while turning his/her toe, the familiar strains of--naturally--"I Did It My Way." It is as though Calder's circus, grown too large for the lobby, had taken over one of the main floors.

I saw the show just before it was finally in place, and the atmoshphere was enriched with dollies, ladders, push-carts, wires and tools which might have been part of the show but which one knew were not, since everything belonging to the show is easily identified by the number it carries as its signature. Borofsky tells us that for two years he did little artistically but count, and indeed in a kind of reliquary one can see a stack of sheets, thirty-two inches high, the result of that monotonous labor. The counting continues, perhaps now carried on by the "Hammering Men," perhaps by the exercising "Giant." The numbers painted on individual works mark the point in the counting process at which the work was done. The "Dancing Clown" was at 2,845,325. Borofsky is already up to 2,970,882, the number borne by the poster for the show, of "Man with a Briefcase," evidently a kind of self-portrait. This figure seems more representative of Borofsky's artistic energies than the slightly nightmarish photograph of him pointing to numbers imposed upon his forehead, face, arms and chest, and looking as though he had survived the inscriptional punishments of the Penal Colony.

Joseph Mashek has spoken of Calder's "no fault circus," as though Calder could do no wrong in the eyes of the Whitney's patrons. Neither, in his own view of himself, and perhaps in that of others, can Borofsky do wrong: All is one. this is not a posture a critic can assume, but it at least means that if we take him at his word, there is only one work to judge, namely everything he has done, taken as a whole. My sense is that if it is the inside of his mind, it's not a very interesting mind, and if it is not--well, the justification for showing everything dissolves. You have only "your [self]" to please, and I think you would enjoy the show. It is a marvelous installation, but very minor art. There's a bit of the Zeitgeist if anyone is still looking for it!
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Title Annotation:exhibitions in West Berlin and the Whitney Museum in New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 2, 1985
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