Donald B. Kuspit

  • Alain Kirili

    Alain Kirili’s “subject matter” is the double bind, achieved through the single bend. Essentially an ironsmith, Kirili bends his metal—with a vigor which leaves a hollow, and which in retrospect is the most exciting part of the work after the experience of the density of the iron—at what turns out to be the top or “head” of his piece. The piece peaks in the bend, which gives it a Giacometti-like figural dimension, the anonymous look of a totem from an unrecognizable culture. But Kirili’s “figures” do not locate in the empty space of a mournful European square—are not mired in their privacy while

  • Leon Golub’s Murals of Mercenaries: Aggression, “Ressentiment,” and the Artist’s Will to Power

    One hardly dares speak any more of the will to power: it was different in Athens.
    —Friedrich Nietzsche, Notes (1880–81)

    The vehement yearning for violence, so characteristic of some of the best modern or creative artists, thinkers, scholars, and craftsmen, is a natural reaction of those whom society has tried to cheat of their strength.
    —Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

    THE FIGURES ARE BRUTE, RAW, made of acidified, scraped paint. Light sinks into their harsh surface, confirming the density of their presence: they block our view, exhaust our seeing with their monstrousness. Even the field that



    MODERNISM—WHICH I TAKE to be that point of view which sees art as the mastery of purity—involves not so much a loss of tradition as a willing suspension of tradition. It is not so much that tradition is impossible from the perspective of the present. as that the very meaning of historicity—its implications of smooth continuity, of the easy inevitability that seems to make events flow into one another—has been bankrupted by a new sense of what it means to be in the present. To be modern, as Jung says, means to be “fully conscious of the present,” and that full consciousness is not possible from

  • Civil War: Artist Contra Critic

    Criticism of today, when it is serious, intelligent, full of good intentions, tends to impose on us a method of thinking and dreaming which might become another bondage. Preoccupied with what concerns it particularly, its own field, literature, it will lose sight of what concerns us, painting. If that is true, I shall be impertinent enough to quote Mallarmé: ‘A critic is someone who meddles with something that is none of his business.’
    —Paul Gauguin, Letter to André Fontainas, March 1899

    Despite his lack of merit, the artist is today, and has been for many years, nothing but a spoiled child. How

  • Cosmetic Transcendentalism: Surface-Light in John Torreano, Rodney Ripps and Lynda Benglis

    THE WORK OF JOHN TORREANO, Rodney Ripps and Lynda Benglis, especially certain “sparkling” objects which present rather than represent light and use it to dazzle our eyes rather than to reflect a surface, seem to me a new species of “luxury painting.” Clement Greenberg once applied this term to French painting in the period between the World Wars. Its sweep included masters as different as Braque and Matisse. They all came together in a pursuit of sensation for its own sake, a luxurious handling of means with a near indifference to subject matter, or at most the acceptance of a convention of

  • Howard Buchwald: Perspective Once Again a Problematic

    So the history of perspective may be understood with equal right as a triumph of the feeling for reality, making for distance and objectivity, and as a triumph of the human struggle for power, denying distance.
    —Erwin Panofsky, Perspective As a Symbolic Form

    LIKE THE GHOST OF HAMLET'S FATHER, perspective—that “ambivalent method” of pictorial construction, as Panofsky calls it—arouses our own ambivalence. Perspective reminds us that form is in part “determined by a system of coordinates present only in the spectator’s imagination,” and, as such, form is implicitly “referred to an eccentric

  • Existential Formalism: The Case of Sharon Gold

    Freedom implies . . . the existence of an environment to be changed: obstacles to be cleared; tools to be used. Of course it is freedom which reveals them as obstacles, but by its free choice it can only interpret the meaning of their being. It is necessary that they be there, wholly brute, in order that there may be freedom.
    —Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

    SHARON GOLD’S PAINTINGS ARE unequivocally modernist.1 But to bespeak, however brilliantly, their materiality—of format as well as substance—is not fully to qualify their modernism. For, at least since the late 1960s, modernism has

  • Two Critics: Thomas B. Hess and Harold Rosenberg

    These are the inhabitants of the country of the mind,
    Or only the marching motion of the mind,
    But still, this is what the mind gives the mind.

    —Randall Jarrell

    THEY WERE MEN OF pluralistic abilities speaking in the name of an exoteric conception of art. The one was a poet, art critic and philosopher, the other an editor, art critic and curator. Underlying the multiplicity of both was a common conception of culture—in Matthew Arnold’s distinction in Anarchy and Culture, as a social rather than scientific passion (or, if also scientific, then with a science in the name of the social). Criticism,

  • Alfred Jensen: Systems Mystagogue

    THE PAINT’S VERY THICK in these pictures, and the systems have their own kind of density, even though some of them are familiar. But the issue is not whether Alfred Jensen’s painted systems are cryptic or commonplace, for the convention behind them all easily becomes clear with a little effort. They’re all decipherable, although cosmic in their implications: and maybe the fact that they are readily decipherable means they’re simplistic—that they oversimplify the cosmos. Rather, the issue is the way even the most intellectually and esthetically engaging paintings seem pointless. Whatever complication

  • Elizabeth Murray’s Dandyish Abstraction

    JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, DISCUSSING “ONE OF the most fundamental tendencies of human reality—the tendency to fill,” asserts that “a good part of our life is passed in plugging up holes, in filling empty places, in realizing and symbolically establishing a plenitude.”1 Well, in Elizabeth Murray’s painting, the plenitude seems to have been there from the start, masked by, yet emanating from, the planes of the picture. The problem is to puncture this plenitude (to break the bubble, so to speak) by making holes in it—symbolic holes which may seem to imply, if not an emptiness, an alternative, less complete,

  • Art Criticism: Where’s the Depth?

    The good critic remains what he always was, as rare, said Schopenhauer, “as the phoenix, which appears only once in five hundred years.”
    —Henri Peyre, The Failures of Criticism

    TRADITION HAS IT THAT THERE are two steps to criticism, namely, description and judgment, or an empirical and an evaluative step. The dilemma is, which has priority. For some it is more important to describe the actuality of a work of art accurately than to appraise its esthetic quality. For them, judgment is not a separate act because intuition of quality is inherent in perception. The way perception of fact subsumes

  • Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art

    That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone.
    —Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics

    And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.
    —Joel 2:30

    BEGIN BY TAKING CLYFFORD STILL at his word as to his intention. The key to his art: the idea of freedom. He calls his paintings “fragment [s] of a means to freedom,” and dedicates them “to all who would know the meaning and the responsibilities of freedom.”1 Not only is his art a means to an end, but a successful one, the “valid instrument