Whatever happened to pattern and decoration, narrative art, conceptual art, women’s art, new image, and funk? Where is minimalism now that we need it?
Everyone put the decade down, but now the seventies begin to look like a golden age of plurality in art. In these hard economic times there just aren't enough buyers to support many variations, so dealers are reacting by banding together to promote one kind of art. As the money, shrinks, painters seem to use less paint; and sculpture – expensive to make, expensive to store – appears to attract few new practitioners.
There are other changes. For one, the artists are different. To make it in the eighties, an artist needs to be more than talent; he should be aggressive, organized, articulate – and male. Janelle Riering of Metro Pictures Gallery says that the successful artists today are those who succeed in whatever they undertook.
“Robert Longo could run anything,” she says. “Sometimes l'm tempted to let him run the gallery.”
The artist has to be organized if he’s going to produce, and volume is the name of the game. While many galleries moan that this is the slowest season in years, others claim that collectors are beating down the doors. To hear one collector tell it, buyers stampeded to get at the new Baselitizes when they were unveiled at Sonnabend, and the Salle show, jointly produced by Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, was sold out before it opened.
One result of this buyers’ tropism is the pressure on the Big Two, Schnabel and Salle (to be the Big Three when Robert Longo has his Metro Pictures-Castelli event next season) to generate art in quantities seldom expected of artists so early in their careers (all are 30). Bohemianism is out, and with the exception of street types from the Lower East Side, a bourgeois “life style” (as it was called in the seventies) seems expected. Take, for example, critic Robert Pincus-Witten’s otherwise congratulatory account in Arts Magazine of his visit to Eric Fischl’s studio, which he describes as a “so-so loft on Reade Street, up five flights and an occasional chair covered with cat hair (no rest for the weary allergenic).” So in addition to drive, talent and a healthy respect for his own work, the artist should also have a cleaning lady.
True, the stereotype of the artist as a meditative sort, recreating his fantasies in his garret, hasn't been valid for some time. But I always thought of the artist as the odd-man out, someone who thinks too much and isn't regimented enough to be comfortable in the regular workaday world. These days artists don’t have time to be reflective, nor have they the luxury to be drunk like Pollock or crazy like van Gough. There’s no room for eccentrics. And what is art if not inspired eccentricity?
The David Salle opening was loudly touted as the event of March, and as if to illustrate its tunnel vision, the art world spoke of little else. Rather than contribute to excess, I prefer to concentrate on some diverse shows that probably won’t have gotten more attention had it not been for the flurry words surrounding the Salle exhibition. Eric Fischl’s opening at Ed Thorpe was the first I’ve been to in along time where people stood around in little clumps actually discussing the paintings. Fischl’s work invites this kind of involvement and participation, and has so many overlapping layers of possible Freudian interpretation that psychologists can have a field day with it.
Although all of his paintings are strong, it seems that once a year or so, Fischl comes up with one so haunting that once it is analyzed and internalized, it sticks in your mind as would a memorized poem. Last year that painting was "Time For Bed," which ostensibly depicts two children in pajamas saying goodnight to their parents during a suburban cocktail party. In Fischl’s hands this ordinary subject becomes a raw portrait of adult pain and childhood sexuality.
The same theme is more explicitly explored in his "Bad Boy," where a nude woman lies on her back, examining her toes and pretending to ignore the presence of her son, who has wandered into the bedroom. His back is to us, but we know that her blatant exposure both fascinates and repels him. He takes advantage of her feigned privacy to reach behind himself and dip into her purse. We also know that while he feels like the miscreant, she’s really the one to blame (it reminds me of those Depression era murals in which everyone is stealing from everybody else). The sexual theme is echoed in a bowl of fruit on the dresser, filled with swollen oranges and tumescent bananas. Although the scene is lit with comforting ribbons of afternoon sun filtered through venetian blinds, it is fraught with tension.
Fischl’s black and white paintings lack the electricity of "Time For Bed" and "Bad Boy" and are therefore somewhat less satisfying. In each of the other paintings we identify entirely with the boy, who garners our sympathy. The black-and-whites of groups of young people playing on the beach are like snapshots – the protagonist is out of range, behind the camera. There is another level, suggested by the sexual antics of the frolicking youngsters and their distorted, almost anguished faces, but it isn't obvious.
The emotion is all too recognizable in "Grief," a painting of a father holding the nude body of his drowned son, and the feeling it calls up is so strong that it overwhelms any other reaction to the painting. I felt the work took advantage of my natural worst fears as a parent, but in a cheap way, sort of in the way the Postdoes everyday. Fischl is much more moving when dealing with complicated emotions.
Along with David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, and Troy Brauntuch, Fischl attended Cal Arts in the early seventies. He can definitely be seen as an American painter with roots in Hopper, and although his painting is more intentionally awkward than Hopper’s and his subject matter more explicit, the existential feeling is the same.
Richard Haas’s work is remarkable not only because it’s good, but because it’s not like anything else. It is not painting, not sculpture, and more than just mural art or trompe l’oeil. Being unclassifiable, it is likely to be able to withstand the shifting vagaries of contemporary taste.
Most familiar to New Yorkers is Haas’s first outdoor painting (done in 1974-75) at Prince and Greene Streets in SoHo, where he repeated the elaborate ironwork and windows of the facade on the blank side of a loft building. It’s trompe l’oeil effects never fail to amaze tourists, and SoHo residents never tire of it – very few artists today have Haas’s ability to appeal to the public while maintaining the respect and admiration of the very picky artistic community.
In the last seven years, Haas has done many such projects, and his architectural fantasies now grace buildings across the country. (Richard Haas, The Architecture of Illusion, Rizzoli, 1981, illustrates his various projects and includes an interesting autobiographical text.) He’s done interiors as well, but his four rooms at Brooke Alexander are among his first attempts at a total environment, also involving light and sound. These rooms are quite small and windowless, with painted foam-core walls, painted canvas floors, and plywood furniture – floor-to-ceiling trompe l’oeil marble, tile and parquet. He calls it “Remembrance of Things Past.” It is evocative of the thirties, but although everything seems familiar, the sources have been filtered through Haas’s imagination and can’t be pinned down. The “music”, written or “mixed” by Virgil Moorefield, contains barely discernible crowd sounds, the occasional voice of Marlene Dietrich, and other oddments which waft by.
Being an admirer of Haas’s work. I had looked forward to seeing this piece but found it a little static. In the past, Haas’s genius has been in his ability to surprise, in the contrast between his imaginative renderings and the existing elements. In order to be as successful with a complete environment he may have to become less stylized and more idiosyncratic to make up for the loss of interplay between the real and the unreal.
Despite reports of the early demise of abstract art, Willem de Kooning’s new work at Fourcade proves that it is still alive and well and living in Easthampton. Quietly working away on his Long Island studio, de Konning has, at 79, made significant changes in his style which are characterized by less paint and purer color. But more than that, these painting are distinguished by a pervasive calm, as if the artist has finally come to terms with himself and is free from the turbulence of his younger years.
After being subjected to so much “bad” painting and gloomy subject matter, it’s refreshing to look at paintings which are not afraid to be pretty and are so utterly about paint – paint and color and light. Nothing is muddied, although these are broad strokes that are put on, scraped off, and reapplied. The colors are squeaky clean – pinks, yellows, and jewel-like greens – the clarity of which are intensified by de Kooning’s liberal use of white which makes the light seem to come from behind.
These unabashedly beautiful, enthusiastically abstract paintings prove that fashion is just that – fashion. All you really need to do is good painting.