Other voices: Scott Rothkopf four critical vignettes.
This experience, though admittedly personal, may signal the extent to which the art criticism of the '80s was quickly subsumed within a totalizing, if heterogeneous, discourse, only to become co-opted by legions of graduate students with a flair for the parenthetical "(pre-)fix." We swallowed whole an official "history" of "the '80s" that wasn't actually a history at all, but rather a selective corpus of mostly primary criticism canonized in anthologies such as Hal Foster's The Anti-Aesthetic and Brian Wallis's Art After Modernism. It became hard to see the forest through the theory, which makes the task of confronting the less-remembered criticism of the early '80s particularly appealing for someone who missed it the first time around. This is not to disparage the writing that came later in the decade or the genuine contributions of critical theory to our understanding of the visual arts. However, as I discovered for myself after delving into the art press of the early '80s, the discourse that came to repres ent the decade emerged from a surprisingly multifarious and febrile chorus of critical trends and voices.
The unbridled critical enthusiasm that greeted the '8os can only be truly appreciated against the gloomy backdrop of the late '70s. "The decade is over. Don't you feel better already?" John Perreault asked readers of his last SoHo Weekly News column of 1979. "To many people who were active in the '60s, the '70s were a bore.... The art-world cliche is that nothing happened." For several years critics had been wringing their hands over what Carter Ratcliff dubbed an "often sluggish, always confusing" decade that lacked the effervescent yet focused innovation of the preceding one. "The '7os has been a decade which felt like it was waiting for something to happen," Kim Levin wrote in Arts in 1979. "It was as if history was grinding to a halt.... The mainstream trickled on minimalizing and conceptualizing itself into oblivion." In place of new ideas, writers such as Levin saw only the mannered refinement of old ones, descended from Minimalism, Conceptual art, and modernist painting, the dregs of which kept turning up on what Jeff Perrone called "all those dog-shit painting covers" of Artforum in the late '70s.
Luckily for the art press, the '80s came right on time. In just one salubrious year, the ennui of the '70s gave way to a vivifying sense of epochal change, as Peter Schjeldahl demonstrated in January 1981 in his first column back at the Village Voice: "More is happening in American art right now than ever before. There is more of everything and everybody, including critics." But what happened to the writing of all these critics? The trenchant observations of writers associated with October and their like-minded colleagues have for good reason remained at the forefront of our understanding of the period. Yet more idiosyncratic figures and critical developments deserve our attention too, for the value of their insights and to fill out our somewhat lopsided historical record. With twenty years distance it is possible to return to the art press of the early '8os and construct a few preliminary profiles--not so much of critics themselves but of their varied and vibrant criticism.
1. THE DIARIST
NOVEMBER 12, 1980: "THE EVENING ESSENTIALLY A HAPPY but disquieting one: it definitely marks the death of the '60s," proclaims Robert Pincus-Witten's diary (as published in Arts) on the occasion of Metro Pictures's opening party. "Henceforth, we of the '68-'72 set, no matter our good will, are of another, older generation. In the juke box light of the dance floor...I could feel my laughing crow's feet deepen into wrinkles. This is no plus ca change moment but a different era." For a critic who had played a central role in defining the previous epoch, this clearly wasn't just another night on the town. Still, after fifteen years on the frontlines of new art--an interval that could spawn almost as many generations of artists as fruit flies--Pincus-Witten wasn't about to desert the new recruits. Instead, he plunged afresh into young artists' studios and gallery openings, chronicling the emergence of the '80s in a series of diary entries published in Arts from 1976 to 1990. Although today these writings are less remembered than his landmark essays on post-Minimalism, they remain among the most fascinating documents of the period, brimming with insight and local color, as well as the historical perspective and nagging doubt of a senior statesman confronting an "era" not his own.
By the end of the '70s, Pincus-Witten--along with most of the art world--had tired of the post-Minimal and Conceptual art that he had so eloquently championed, but he wasn't quite sure what to advocate instead. His 1979 "Entries" in Arts show a critic struggling to define a new set of priorities at the turn of the decade. After years of supporting artists who questioned the status of the singular art object, he appeared torn between that tradition and a secret passion for the salable commodity, poised to make an art-world comeback. "Then there's me and that's a problem," he wrote in 1979, "my hedging, possessing as I do, both an extreme scorn for the traditions of the luxury object as well as a love of them honed by an appreciation of fine or prime examples of previous art, an art that, after all, never aspired to a conceptual basis." For the moment, he held true to his soixante-huitard roots and resisted a return to "the goddamn visuality of art once more." But given just a few months, the "object"--in the f orm of painting--proved impossible for him to ignore.
In the first few years of the '80s, we follow Pincus-Witten as he schleps upstairs to the well-furnished lofts of one painter after another. A writer so instinctively garrulous he could use the word "Lunch" as a sentence, Pincus-Witten described these encounters in rich detail. Apart from the conversation and, of course, the art, we hear about David Salle's "pair of pickled oak fake-Archipenko lampbases" and Eric Fischl's origins ("Contrary to my snotty expectation, Fischl is not a Long Island Jew, but a cautious, taciturn 33-year-old Protestant"). In 1980 and '81 alone, his columns made serious mention of Gary Stephan, Julian Schnabel, and Salle (whom he dubbed "Boonies" after their fashionable dealer), as well as Fischl and a few of the Italian painters still largely unknown in the States. These entries are marked by Pincus-Witten's renewed interest in a medium that just a year earlier he had feared couldn't "'do it' anymore," but his enthusiasms are often tempered by a sprinkling of doubt. His May 1981 col umn provides a characteristic example: "What I like most about Schnabel's work is not the work so much but his sheer o'er-arching, knock-your eyes-out folly....Schnabel's protracted-adolescent self-dramatization seems vivifying, 'wow,' risk-filled in a way that allows for a shared exuberance we are perhaps only too happy to lend ourselves to, a certain self-deluding collusive participation."
Some readers might find fault with Pincus-Witten's equivocation, his having a Dean & Deluca tart and mocking it too. Yet doubt proved a unique and useful tool in his critical arsenal. His willingness to acknowledge an artwork's seductive powers while questioning aspects of its allure (and even his own judgment) is highly refreshing in the early-'80s critical context, prone as it was to the all-or-nothing modes of jeremiad and encomium. The occasional hedge was clearly informed by his generational perspective, as when he wrote in April 1980, "From 1968 on ... the fundamental question of painting's existence was addressed. Thus 1968 is a critical moment in the history of art, like 1912. Not because painting was defeated--it can't, won't and shouldn't be--but its very questioning leads to big history. 1978 on merely accepts painting as a societal given. Well, that's nice but it represents only a moment in the little history of art. To recognize this--even say it--does not close me off to the art of the moment." Quite the opposite: Pincus-Witten proved highly susceptible to the zeirgeist and used his "Entries" to draw attention to artists who provoked his admiration, interest, and inexhaustible curiosity.
In a September 1980 column, Pincus-Witten explicitly defined this critical agenda in opposition to the new poststructuralist criticism proliferating most visibly in the pages of October. He professed some sympathy with the goals of the "October clique," including Rosalind Krauss and his former student Douglas Crimp--authors of some of the period's most provocative and penetrating criticism. Yet to Pincus-Witten, their theoretical bent smacked of formalism in "fine Post-Modern drag," and he accused them of focusing on analytical methods at the expense of the best new art. For him, Krauss's methodology, "as valuable as it is, has never been applied to elucidating the work of art or artists that were really new. Instead, it has become a form of joyless unemotional commentary." He wrote defiantly: "A critic is not as good as his or her methodology.... A critic s worth, instead, is measured by the art that he or she chooses to defend, provided the defense is early.... I see the critical task as being essentially t hat of pointing to the new."
Never one to shy from a critical tussle, Krauss shot back in a letter to Arts published two months later. There she noted that Baudelaire's criticism endured, despite his "uncertain gifts as a talent-scout" (after all, he chose the unremarkable Constantin Guys, not Manet, as "the painter of modern life"). Furthermore, she rejected Pincus-Witten's claim that Greenberg's gift was in choosing artists rather than in what Krauss saw as his "lucid analyses of the structural conditions of modernism, which will survive... his disastrous 'pointings-to' of the last decade and a half." She continued: "In the vanguardist hustle of the present art world... we get a regular cross-fire of pointing. In all this there just might be some need for and some purpose to argument, that is, to an attempt to understand what a specific phenomenon portends." Douglas Crimp, then managing editor of October, backed Krauss up in an accompanying letter, clarifying that poststructuralist critics were involved with a critique of formalism, no t its defense. "But of course formalism plays much the same role in art critical and art historical circles nowadays as communism did in the... 1950s," he wrote; "accuse someone of it and he's guilty until proved innocent." Pincus-Witten, in a vituperative and innuendo-laden reply, maintained their guilt and further charged Krauss with arrogance ("My, holier than thou and self-beautifying!") and Crimp with conspiratorial collusion ("so manifestly is he His Master's Voice").
Of course, there are strengths to each position--the value of both "pointing to" the best new art and developing rigorous new critical methodologies and arguments. But what was at stake in the exchange was nothing less than the very function of art criticism, and (bracketing Crimp for the moment) it ironically transpired between two figures who ostensibly had much in common. Both Krauss and Pincus-Witten were academically trained art historians and CUNY colleagues who began their critical careers writing for Artforum in the mid-'60s. Up through the '70s they had even advocated on behalf of many of the same artists. Yet the advent of the '80s, with its various revivals, forced a polarizing of critical priorities. Pincus-Witten to a certain extent resigned himself to the "little history" that painting's renewal to him implied, while Krauss, generally more hesitant to embrace the new, kept after the "big history" that an artist such as Sherrie Levine seemed to promise. At a time when intellectuals such as Krauss were interested in artistic strategies, not styles," Pincus-Witten clung to the latter term and regularly used his column as a laboratory in which to experiment with groupings of artists under the banner of new "isms." ("Maximalism," the title of a 1981 article as well as a later collection of his writings, although suggestive, never quite stuck) Perhaps more divisive still, Pincus-Witten's diaries demonstrated an almost Vasarian commitment to biographical detail at a time when Krauss and like-minded colleagues completely rejected such an approach, as her 1981 essay "In the Name of Picasso" made clear. "In some way, art is correlative to a set of episodes called biography," Pincus-Witten maintained in an entry made the year before, but this belief made his diaries nothing more than a "gossip column" in the eyes (and words) of October's editors.
This characterization was not altogether inappropriate, but it need not imply the intellectual bankruptcy or uselessness of Pincus-Witten's approach. To the contrary, his diaries prove an absolutely indispensable source for historians today. They chronicle artists' panels, conferences, exhibition openings, spirited conversations, and other fleeting but historically significant happenings for which there is ordinarily no textual trail. At a time when many critics worried over the renewed "commodification" of the art object and an all-powerful market, Pincus-Witten gave his readers a privileged peek at the egos and intrigue that invisibly and invariably shape a discourse, no matter how high-minded. Given the historical importance of these forces, it's impossible to dismiss Pincus-Witten's commentary on them as merely inconsequential "gossip," but rather his reportage often illuminates the personal and commercial machinations that inevitably inform art's checkered past and present. (Ironically, Pincus-Witten's b ehind-the-scenes approach might be said to share something with the "institutional critique" of such October-friendly artists as Louise Lawler and Hans Haacke, though they would surely contend that he lacked their necessary "criticality.") The fact that his chatty disclosures were interspersed with his often canny judgments on works of art only served to further blur the ordinarily well-policed boundary between genuine "criticism" and feature reporting on the world of art. Pincus-Witten recognized as much when, in 1984, he wrote with his usual candor, "We try to separate journalism from criticality, though I admit that even here my assertions are too often honored in the breach."
2. THE ARCHITECTS
AT THE TURN OF THE '80S, THE TYPICALLY PAROCHIAL ART press cast a roving eye on popular film, music, and fashion--to name only a few of its lasting fancies. Yet by far the greatest extracurricular infatuation was architecture, garnering numerous reviews and features as well as the covers of Artforum, which showcased a project by SITE in 1982, and Art in America, which featured the recently completed AT&T Building in 1984. Art in America in fact went so far as to launch a monthly series in 1980 introducing readers to luminaries such as Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves. While it is a commonplace today that the term "postmodernism" migrated from the criticism of architecture to that of art, the means by which a besotted art press helped enable that transition deserves a second look.
Two art-world developments of the late '70s paved the way for architecture's rapid infiltration of the art-critical discourse. Sculpture, for one, began to adopt a distinctly architectural idiom in the work of Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, Jackie Ferrara, and Dennis Oppenheim, among other practitioners of "House Art" (to borrow a sobriquet from Mel Bochner) or "Constructionism" (in the parlance of Robert Pincus-Witten). Their work often took the form of forts, sheds, or Wild West facades that encouraged art critics to import language and concepts from their architectural brethren (a situation made explicit in exhibitions such as the Whitney's 1978 "Architectural Analogues," which featured objects "that hover in an ambiguous territory between sculpture and architecture").
While this trend played itself out from the hectare-hungry triumph of outdoor sculpture at Documenta in '77 to a slide-show postscript at the Whitney Biennial in '81, the art world developed a parallel taste for architectural drawings, which appeared at a growing number of exhibition venues in New York. Among commercial galleries, Max Protetch played a pioneering role, but the phenomenon moved center stage when Pierre Apraxine presented "Architecture I" at Leo Castelli Gallery late in 1977. The show made the work of Rossi, James Stirling, Robert Venturi, and other "postmodern" pioneers unavoidable for art lovers doing the SoHo rounds, and it compelled art magazines to wedge architectural coverage into their exhibition reviews, as commonly occurred through the mid-'80s. This is not to suggest that these architects would have otherwise been unknown to art audiences, but, as Richard Pommer noted in Art in America, the Castelli exhibition and others showcasing the architectural in-crowd gave "point to the talk of a new audience for architecture and a rapprochement with the art of the galleries." Explicitly linking the vogue for architectural drawings and recent developments in the visual arts, Pommer noted that the work of the then widely exhibited architects had "not a little in common, though coincidentally, with the recent projects of Alice Aycock, Charles Simonds and others recapturing architecture for art from the other side of the divide."
Having kidnapped architecture for its own purposes, the art press seemed intent on coaxing a rigorous definition of "postmodernism" out of its new hostage. The term had actually been cropping up in art criticism since the late '60s, most often simply to describe what came after Minimalism or Greenbergian Modernism, save for the rare cases of theoretical sophistication, such as Leo Steinberg's 1972 essay on Rauschenberg's flatbed picture plane, "Reflections on the State of Criticism." (A more typical and telling usage could be found in Douglas Davis's 1977 book Art Culture: Essays on the Post-Modern, in which the index entry for "Post-modernist" art directs readers to "See Post-minimal.") The architecture world, by contrast, seemed to know what "postmodernism" was all about, and it seduced the art press with the promise of elucidating a term that art writers had been fast to adopt but slow to define.
Most art critics quickly grasped a definition of architectural postmodernism dependent on an eclectic pastiche of historical styles. Yet as they searched for more refined analogies between postmodernism in architecture and in art, they were often surprised to be led back to their own fold, in particular to the then demode Pop art. Dan Graham explored this connection in Artforum articles in 1979 and 1981. The first, "Art in Relation to Architecture/Architecture in Relation to Art," was illustrated with a Roy Lichtenstein painting alongside the work of postmodern poster boy Robert Venturi. Graham wrote, "What Venturi appropriates from the Pop artists is the understanding that not only can the internal structure of the architectural work be seen in terms of a relation of signs, but that the entire built (cultural) environment with which the building is inflected is constructed from signs." Although the architectural community had been fascinated with Pop art (and made no secret of that interest), in the art worl d the movement had to a certain extent fallen off the radar after the advent of Minimalism. So while a generation of artists had been busy carving up the landscape and creating installations concerned with the phenomenological and spatial effects typically associated with modern architecture, the postmodern architectural community had been steadily mining Pop's interest in vernacular culture and appropriated forms, as well as attending to the semiotic implications of such a practice. Not coincidentally, these issues reappeared in the writing of art critics and historians, including Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens, who in 1979 put the problems of appropriation and representation at the center of their incipient definition of "postmodern" art. In fact, Graham's assertion that Venturi--as well as the Pop artists--saw the entire "cultural environment" as constructed from interpenetrating layers of "signs" dovetailed neatly with Crimp's contention that the artists he grouped under the banner "Pictures" were explorin g the all-consuming world of media imagery and its modes of signification.
As the '80s began, debates in the architectural world provided a useful model for art critics seeking to make distinctions between various types of postmodern practice. By the time art writers got hip to architecture, they realized that their confreres across "the divide" were in the midst of a turf war over whether postmodernism even existed and, if so, whether it necessarily entailed the nostalgic (and often embarrassing) practice of mismatching Mansard roofs with Palladian windows. This battle reached art audiences directly with "Architecture and Limits," a three-part collection of articles organized by architect Bernard Tschumi for Artforum in 1980 and 1981. In this trailblazing series, Tschumi skewered "current historicist recipes" as a "sign of fear and a sign of escape" from more radical changes at the heart of the discipline. As an alternative, Tschumi presented the architecture of Raimund Abraham, John Hejduk, and Eisenman, as well as strident cautionary tales by historians Kenneth Frampton and Antho ny Vidler. A number of vanguard art critics latched onto these distinctions, as Hal Foster demonstrated in a 1981 Artforum review of "Houses for Sale" at Castelli, in which he denounced architecture that "begs, borrows, steals" from tradition in the name of a humanist "Return," much as he condemned the historicist pastiche of styles promulgated in the paintings of Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente. Crimp followed a similar tack in "Appropriating Appropriation," a 1982 catalogue essay that contrasted the historicist, idealist postmodernism of Michael Graves with the critical appropriations and deconstructions of Frank Gehry. Architecture thus afforded these critics and their art-world audience a straightforward, easily graspable comparison between "good" and "bad" postmodernism, at a time when such distinctions may have been more difficult to demonstrate in the murky waters of the visual arts.
Although architecture continued to permeate the art press throughout the mid-'80s, it eventually lost its grip on the art-critical psyche. Today a parade of major buildings manages to pique the art world's curiosity, but more general discussions of architectural theory and practice are far less frequent in the context of writing on the other visual arts. This creeping decline in the discourse was already hinted at in its heyday. In the December 1980 Artforum, Tschumi cautioned against "the art world's fascination with architectural matters, evident in the obsessive number of 'architectural reference' and 'architectural sculpture' exhibitions." He wrote, "To envy architecture's 'usefulness' or, reciprocally, to envy artists' 'freedom' shows in both cases naivete and misunderstanding of the work. . . . To call 'architectural' those sculptures that superficially borrow from a vocabulary of gables and stairs is as naive as to call 'paintings' some architects' tepid watercolors or the P.R. renderings of commercial firms." Similarly, the editors of October's 1981 "Art World Follies" special issue inveighed against the "newly minted coin of the architectural drawing as the latest collectible hedge against inflation." Such a cynical view of market forces may have some merit, since it was perhaps no coincidence that the galleries embraced architectural drawings at a moment when they had little salable art to show, only to reduce architecture's presence when they needed wall space for a bumper crop of painting. Art criticism, of course, followed suit. Having gained much from its passing passion for architecture, it wasted no time in moving on to its next crush.
3. THE PAINTER
THROUGH THE SELECTIVE LENS OF ART HISTORY, WE TEND to see the critical melee of the early '80s as a focused duel between the photo-based art of "Pictures" and brushy neo-expressionism. Although this formulation allows for the later emergence of more restrained, geometric canvases by the likes of Philip Taaffe and Peter Halley, it largely ignores the alternative modes of painting that flourished at the turn of the decade, including that advanced by Thomas Lawson. The Scottish-born painter and critic came to New York in 1975 and soon began publishing insightful essays and masterful exhibition reviews in the pages of Art in America, Flash Art, Artforum, and Real Life, the magazine he cofounded in 1979. In his writing and his own painting practice, Lawson developed one of the most cogent and controversial approaches to the medium in the '80s--pursuing a critical agenda commonly ascribed to the photo-based art of "Pictures" within the unlikely space of painting.
In the late '70s, the battle lines between painting and photography were yet to be clearly drawn. Douglas Crimp's seminal 1977 Artists Space exhibition "Pictures" delineated a group of young artists whose work probed the conventions of representation, often with imagery derived from media sources. In this first incarnation, the works were not necessarily photo-based, as evidenced by Crimp's inclusion of Philip Smith's oil-stick drawings and Sherrie Levine's painted presidential profiles. Yet when the critic refined his catalogue essay for the Spring 1979 issue of October, he emphasized photography's importance by omitting Smith in favor of Cindy Sherman, using as illustration Levine's new photographic appropriations, and distancing his project from the recent "New Image Painting" (the essay tellingly ended by aligning his chosen artists with postmodernism rather than modernism, as his catalogue text had done).
Concurrent with this issue of October, the March-April Flash Art addressed the new "interest in representation" with articles by Crimp, Lawson, and David Salle. Lawson's contribution, "The Uses of Representation: Making Some Distinctions," reads as a sympathetic companion piece to Crimp's "About Pictures" in its advocacy of a critical return to representation (Lawson, it should be mentioned, had written positively in Art in America of Crimp's original exhibition in one of its few reviews and had put a photographic appropriation of Levine's on the inaugural cover of Real Life). A self-proclaimed manifesto--often written in the first-person plural appropriate to the genre--"The Uses of Representation" discussed four of Crimp's five original artists, as well as other figures, including Lawson himself. Further cementing his alliance with "Pictures," Lawson used phrases found directly in Crimp's text, citing an involvement with "representation as such" and arguing that "our images do not refer directly to the worl d at large, but instead to the world of other images."
During the first few years of the '80s, Lawson and several other artists, including Richard Bosman, Walter Robinson, and Michael Zwack, gained attention for their deadpan paintings and drawings based primarily on anonymous media imagery. Often grouped with David Salle, Jack Goldstein, and sometimes Eric Fischl, they appeared in varying combinations in a slew of feature articles and exhibitions exploring issues of representation, illustration, and allegory (critics at times called the loosely affiliated gang "Real Lifers" after Lawson's magazine). These artists' success, however, coincided with a fresh assault on painting by critics including Craig Owens and Crimp, whose 1981 October essay "The End of Painting" seriously challenged the viability of the medium. The critical retrenchment was no doubt encouraged by the rise of a fashionable neo-expressionist discourse centered on artists such as Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, but it had the effect of redrawing the battle lines so that Lawson, previously a critical ally of Crimp and Owens, was pushed with his like-minded painters to the side of the ancien regime.
Lawson launched a stirring and articulate counteroffensive in "Last Exit: Painting," published in the October 1981 Artforum. The article represented nothing less than a bold defense of painting's critical potential in the face of a ravenous market and a disapproving intellectual elite. In a move that would have seemingly endeared him to the October crowd, Lawson distanced himself from the "reactionary expressionism" of Chia, Schnabel, and Clemente, whom he had already lambasted in a series of incisive exhibition reviews. However, Lawson then turned his fire on Crimp, arguing that "The End of Painting" described a critical situation in which "creative activity is rendered impossible," effectively sentencing artists to "enforced inactivity." While Lawson shared the view of Crimp and Owens that "a truly conscious" artistic practice would concern the camera's all-powerful mediation of contemporary experience, he worried that the photography of Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince might be "too easily dismissed as yet another avant-garde art strategy, commentary too easily recognized." In contrast, Lawson suggested that such a critical investigation might best be conducted within the improbable context of painting, using the medium as "camouflage" to better infiltrate traditional "ideological institutions." He wrote, "The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical esthetic activity at the center of the marketplace where it can cause most trouble." Lawson offered Salle as the exemplar of this seditious approach--a risky gambit, since the high-profile painter had already been linked to the expressionists. "He makes paintings, but they are dead, inert representations of the impossibility of passion in a culture that has institutionalized self-expression," Lawson wrote. They take the most compelling sign of personal authenticity that our culture can provide, and attempt to stop it, to reveal its falseness."
For their part, painting's detractors remained unconvinced by Lawson's polemic, and they quickly moved to distance themselves from his position. Hal Foster, whose critical sensibility shared much with Crimp and Owens, dubbed Lawson's article a "virtual portfolio" of "quasicritical painting" in the January 1982 Art in America. That comment was made just a few pages away from Owens's piece "Back to the Studio," which contained an elaborate critique of "Last Exit: Painting." Owens began on a conciliatory note, conceding Lawson's point that artists might occasionally need to "exploit discredited mediums and modes of production simply in order to be seen." However, apart from this practical issue, he rejected a justification of painting based on "apologies which invoke the seductive notion of a 'subversive complicity' with art-world institutions." In particular, Owens dismissed Salle, Lawson's apotheosis, decrying the "fundamental duplicity" of Lawson's contention that in Salle's work "established conventions [are used] against themselves in the hope of exposing cultural repression." Instead, Owens charged that Salle "strips images of their public resonance in order to reclaim them for subjectivity." This "retreat into the psyche" would have distinguished Salle from the socially minded "Pictures" artists but not from the neo-expressionism that Lawson himself had so disparaged. Meanwhile, the most ardent champion of expressionism, Donald Kuspit, proved no more amenable to Lawson's critical position, as he demonstrated in a scathing Artforum review of the painter's 1982 solo show at Metro Pictures. Responding to a catalogue text Lawson reprinted in Real Life, Kuspit questioned the efficacy of Lawson's painterly appropriationism, arguing that "the Real Life artist may unconsciously compromise his criticality in favor of the socially dominant media image, leaving its glamor intact."
Spurned by the critical camps to both his left and right, Lawson's shrewd position lost ground as the '80s progressed, and his insights are now largely overlooked or remembered as an isolated anomaly rather than as evidence of a sophisticated and pervasive aesthetic theory. Yet in light of recent explorations of the photographic image in the paintings of Luc Tuymans, Thomas Eggerer, and Ulrich Lamsfuss (not to mention the belated recognition of an antecedent such as Gerhard Richter), it's high time for a reappraisal. Today Lawson's writing of the early '80s burns with a kind of urgency no doubt fueled by the friction between his will to paint and his acute sensitivity to the pitfalls inherent in that practice. Imagining the critic alone in his studio--a pen in one hand, a brush in the other--it is nearly impossible for us not to sense a certain degree of pathos or anxiety in his claim that "there is a growing lack of faith in the ability of artists to continue as anything more than plagiaristic stylists," or in his contention that "we are living in an age of skeptic ism and as a result the practice of art is inevitably crippled by the suspension of belief." While my reading might imply the kind of humanist spin Lawson would have no doubt avoided, perhaps he would allow that the historian, like the artists in his text, must sometimes "act in as perverse a way as possible" to create "a disturbance in the calm waters of acceptable . . . taste."
4. THE POETS
IN "ART ATTACKS! HEAVY VOLLEY AT AESTHETIC FOLLY," a special supplement to the September 29, 1981, SoHo Weekly News, Rosalind Krauss opined, "In its most recent incarnation, Artforum announced its determination to ... let 'art speak for itself.' ... And so artists and poets write for Artforum a kind of cheerfully incontinent, incantatory assertion of self and selves." Krauss doesn't name the perpetrators, but Artforum readers would likely have recognized Rene Ricard and Edit deAk as the prime suspects. Ricard, a poet, had recently published a highly personal panegyric to Julian Schnabel, and in the same issue of Artforum that called for art "to speak for itself" deAk had written, "The presence of art directly in a magazine could be like a bass drum, a thumping insistence that could lock the whole enterprise onto a meaningful track." (Krauss clearly felt the incantatory "thump," but the meaning in "meaningful" was up for grabs.) As punishment for their crimes against the discourse, Ricard and deAk didn't follo w their theoretically minded contemporaries into the anthologies and syllabi that today tell the story of the art criticism of the '80s. Whether or not that's a historical injustice is a matter for debate. However, in their day Ricard and deAk occupied indisputably prominent positions in the art press, inspiring their colleagues' admiration and bemusement, as well as the contempt Krauss so pointedly demonstrated. Theirs was an idiosyncratic and deeply felt brand of "criticism," with all the ambiguity the quotation marks imply.
"In point of fact I'm not an art critic. I'm an enthusiast," Ricard declared in the Summer 1981 issue of Artforum. "I like to drum up interest in artists who have somehow inspired me to be able to say something about their work." Three years earlier, Ricard had described his vocation somewhat differently in a New York Times op-ed piece on the joys of the jobless life: "I've never worked a day in my life. If I did it would probably ruin my career, which at the moment is something of a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog." At the moment, Ricard--a former Factory habitue who had appeared in Warhol's Chelsea Girls--could also have claimed to be a poet as well as a writer for Art in America, where he occasionally published short reviews of exhibitions from 1977 to 1979. Among these early pieces, a 1978 review of Billy Sullivan's drawings demonstrates Ricard's poetic sensibility and his knack for seeing a work of art in relation to a particular social milieu, a skill that served him well in the feverish '80s ar t scene. His wry claim that Sullivan had mastered the "difficult color, basic-black" was as much a formal judgment as a social one, perfectly keyed to Sullivan's subjects, the "denizens of a particular brand of magazine society--the people who get into discotheques for free."
Ricard's art writing hit its stride in his 1979 Art in America review of Schnabel's first show of plate paintings, which began with an almost biblical pronouncement: "There comes a point in a painter's life where civilization abandons him." Never mind the fact that the painter in question was all of twenty-eight years old or that the market couldn't get enough of him--Ricard sensed the greatness of Schnabel's self-inflicted heroism. The poet bet the farm on the painter in his 1981 follow-up essay "Not About Julian Schnabel," which marked his move to Artforum, where he would publish for the next several years. "Consumed by the omnivorous maw" of Schnabel's "pictorial machine," Ricard breathlessly proclaimed that the painter had "created an art world" and occupied its center. For better or worse, Ricard was probably right, and his claim epitomized the heady enthusiasm that defined the '80s for so many critics who, like him, had been haunted by their own sense of belatedness during the previous decade. "I missed the Abstract Expressionists," Ricard wrote, "and I wasn't here for the beginnings of Pop art and afterwards everything seemed to've split up and now we have it here again and I am part of it and I am finally seeing it happen before my very eyes."
This exaggerated sense of timeliness may be just what a critic needs to capture the mood of a moment, and Ricard certainly made the most of it. In his 1981 essay "The Radiant Child," he waxed poetic over the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Raring, while his article "The Pledge of Allegiance" contained sprawling early appreciations of East Village personality-cum-dealer Patti Astor, spray paint master Futura 2000, fluorescentophile Kenny Scharf, and other rising stars of the downtown scene, circa 1982. Often, Ricard's observations about new art betrayed great wit and insight ("If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel"). But, more important for audiences today, his essays read like explosive time capsules of the '80s, crammed full of the masterworks and detritus that caught his slightly frantic eye. Ricard's "I," in fact, was the guiding force behind his prose, and he wrote in unabashedly self-centered terms about art's emotional effect on "the viewer (me)." Today that parenthetical "me" still jumps off the page--a coy unmasking of the ubiquitous "viewer" so often invoked by critics to disguise their personal experiences as universal ones.
Ricard had no use for such art-critical drag: "Why bother. I have too great an urge to take off my clothes in public." A raconteur and exhibitionist at heart, he described the art world and his place in it with a candor both mesmerizing and repellent in the intimacy of its often sordid detail. He was on a first-name basis with "Jean-Michel," "Julian," and "Brice," and he called paintings "pictures in the old-fashioned, aristocratic manner, not the newly theoretical one. In "Not About Julian Schnabel" we learn of Ricard's fight with Mary Boone Gallery over exclusive rights to publish one of Schnabel's images. After the incident he vowed never to write about anyone in the gallery's stable again and willfully ignored a painter (Gary Stephan) he would otherwise have liked to cover. In "The Pledge of Allegiance," Ricard tells readers that he earned two thousand dollars from the Stedelijk Museum for a Schnabel essay before cynically adding, "And you know what? I never even got to see the show. The trip would have t aken the pay. That, kids, is the establishment."
Although these anecdotes can be a bit distasteful in their narcissism--to say nothing of their morals--Ricard deserves credit for puncturing the seamless critical verbiage that typically veils the commercial workings of the art business. His recurring concern with how a painting might hang in a collector's home was (and remains) an unusual preoccupation in a critical context that ordinarily treats artworks as though they were encountered in a vacuum (a Schnabel in a dining room, he wrote, "made a complete mockery of the usual niceties of sitting at table"). Though different in tone, Ricard's attention to the social context within which art is made and seen shared much with Robert Pincus-Witten's diaries in Arts as well as with sometimes highly confessional diatribes of Jeff Perrone in the same magazine. Yet neither of these writers rivaled Ricard's flair for flair or his singular status as the insider's outsider.
The only writer who might have challenged Ricard for that title was deAk. "DeAk has been everywhere before anybody," William Zimmer commented in a SoHo Weekly News review of a group show she organized, and her writing and occasional curatorial efforts would seem to corroborate the claim. A founding editor of the '70s underground magazine Art-Rite, the Hungarian-born deAk had been a presence in the art press for years, but she jumped to the front of Artforum in February 1980, the first issue tinder Ingrid Sischy's editorial direction. It was in that issue that deAk made her plea for art's direct presence in the press, a passion she had nurtured at Art-Rite and one that Sischy would take up in her prolific publication of artists' projects. Like Ricard, deAk was deeply sensitive to an artwork's cultural context and emotional timbre, which often perfumed her frenetic prose. This approach differed dramatically from a still-lingering Greenbergian formalism of which she complained: "Always seeing itself in terms of 'problems,' much contemporary art has had both hypochondria and an allergy to itself." DeAk was equally dismissive of the new strain of theoretically sophisticated criticism that had gained currency in the early '80s. "There's something rotten about a structure that produces terminological pollution and calls it theory, like a mob-controlled waste disposal company," she wrote. "These semiotician types intimidate through applying more expensive designer labels. It's a means of holding onto power (by sequestering information), like the doctor's wife who intimidates her friends by naming common illnesses with their Latin names."
In contrast to this "hypochondriac" art with its Latin diagnoses, deAk celebrated a kind of artistic onanism and critical decadence in her first major Artforum essay, a 1981 analysis of Francesco Clemente titled "A Chameleon in a State of Grace" (a phrase so oddly pitch-perfect that the Guggenheim used it twenty years later in press materials for the artist's retrospective). The article, peppered with marginalia drawn by the artist himself, aptly distinguished Clemente's relationship to his sources from that of many contemporary American figurative painters. For deAk, the Americans were "Puritans at base," their images "coming from dark movie houses, TV sets and newspapers," a phrase that aptly describes the media sources of many New Image painters or artists in Thomas Lawson's fold. She found their paintings "short in sentience of texture," when compared with the canvases of young Italians more "free to draw their dreams ... their allegories ... their heritage." It was within this relatively unencumbered "st ate of grace" that deAk situated Clemente's embrace of art history and his own libidinal preoccupations: "He attends to his visual culture and tradition, roaming that scenic road in any direction. He is foot-loose in time, culture and metaphor. ... Nuancical kinkiness, whimsicality, unruliness--all are like excess circles around him, and generate that field of charming licentiousness."
Although typical of her style, deAk's essay on Clemente stood outside her all-consuming preoccupation: the art of the street. "My interest in street art is in the insane amount of new information," she commented in a 1982 interview in Real Life Magazine. "Maybe it looks like shit: primitive, infantile, badly done, crumpled, rumpled, crappy, tacky, raunchy, unconscious, whatever." "But the information level of some of these images, messages and even the look itself is what none of the art-world artists I know have been able to come up with." DeAk shared Ricard's taste for the tags of graffiti bombers, and her knowledge of art from "unheated basements" and "under the street" was unequaled in the mainstream art press of the early '80s--a time when alternative organizers such as Fashion/Moda and Colab gained increasing recognition in print and collectors clamored for graffiti art across the East Village.
Yet the critical acceptance deAk helped engineer was in some ways a pyrrhic victory. The art she considered "information from the middle of the night" had a vampiric tendency to lose its power once brought to light in the press or subjected to the incandescent glare of the gallery scene. Her feverish 1983 Artforum account of graffiti bomber--turned--Wild Style artist and performer Rammellzee subtly demonstrates this dilemma. At one moment, she insists on seeing his work within its original street context, writing that "taking him out of that [graffiti] heritage is like saying to the Sun King 'listen, I don't think you should be talking so much about being French.'" Yet just two pages later, deAk submits hits of his work to a practically Morellian stylistic analysis, with neatly rendered lines pointing out the "corner launcher extender" and "whip launcher arrow." DeAk's nod to connoisseurship was meant to explain, not to tame, Rammellzee's art; but it indicates the extent to which all manner of "street art" wa s necessarily haunted by its own critical and commercial success. DeAk became acutely aware of this problem, as she indicated on more than one occasion, putting it best in her last major piece, in April 1984, for Artforum: "How long can you be an outlaw before the clash of context ceases to spark off its own meanings?" When deAk raised this question in 1984, time was clearly running out.
In the charged atmosphere of the '80s art press, deAk and Ricard won as many points for style as penalties for boosterism. Peter Schjeldahl referred to the "sweet delirium" of deAk's "inimitable writing style," while in 1984 Dan Cameron wrote approvingly in Arts that "Ricard was able to match social nuances to higher truths with such delicacy that he made criticism a more creative act than it had been for years." But their poetic partisanship was also vulnerable to charges of critical spinelessness, as Lawson made clear in Artforum: "Rene Ricard ... has offered petulant self-advertisement in the name of a reactionary expressionism, a celebration of the author's importance as a champion of the debasement of art to kitsch, fearful that anything more demanding might be no fun. The writing was mostly frivolous, but noisy, and must be considered a serious apologia for a certain anti-intellectual elite." DeAk attracted similar derision from Perrone in the September 1981 issue of Arts, who cited "Not About Julian Sc hnabel" and "A Chameleon in a State of Grace" as examples of "high art public relations endorsements," signaling a "reversal of critical priorities." "On the whole, deAk (and Ricard) don't seem interested in argument," Perrone lamented. "The writing serves as a plea for appreciation." While these criticisms are to a certain extent well founded, it's important not to throw the radiant child out with the bathwater. The art writing of the early '80s was undoubtedly made richer by deAk's and Ricard's voices, and they fit squarely in a freewheeling critical lineage that extends backward toward critics like Gene Swenson and Gregory Battcock and forward toward authors as diverse as Bruce Hainley, Charlie Finch, and Dave Hickey (whom deAk praised in print in 1982). All things considered, it may be for the best that Ricard and deAk eluded latter-day anthologies and syllabi. Like graffiti art in a museum, their work would surely have lost some of its potent charge--and guilty pleasure.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Writing the '80s.|
|Next Article:||Feature Inc.|