PRINT April 1968

Rosenquist at the Metropolitan

DOUBTLESSLY MY REACTION—ACUTE DISMAY—at the news of a loan exhibition of James Rosenquist’s 10 by 86-foot Pop art mural, F-111, at one of the great museums of the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was somewhat paranoid. But even within the prominently and professionally “advanced“ crowd there were gasps of horror, though for entirely different reasons. Whereas I simply felt threatened, they felt shame, the shame of an avant-garde chicken coming home to roost in a way they had neither imagined nor desired. No one imagined the apotheosis of modernism in this form. Whether it was illusion or rationalization that had been shattered was immaterial. It was still possible to believe that modernism was still resisted, was still engaged in a holy war as recently as when Alan Solomon miscalculated the masochism of his bourgeois patrons at the Jewish Museum, for his exhibitions aroused considerable protest, their publicity value notwithstanding. It was even possible to keep the faith when the new Whitney became just another camp follower, because if the subject of its newest retrospective is Don Judd, the Whitney is also showing the ratified Adolph Gottlieb and even has John Heliker on tap. But Pop art at the Met? Sire, this is no longer the revolution, it is the Terror.

The appearance of the Rosenquist opus at the Metropolitan dramatizes, perhaps more than a first-rate modernist work might have done, the extent to which modernism has become a complex Establishment, involving certain dealers, critics and curators who function as a kind of interlocking directorate which definitively affects taste and the marketplace. There is, of course, no literal governing caste as such, as there was in the days of the old Academy, but the effect is the same. Some art is decreed fashionable, some is not. Power breeds imitation because it always functions the same way. Thus, despite recurrent internecine ideological disputes, modernism inevitably has slipped from the role of liberator into the role of tyrant. True, as an Establishment it is still premised on radical imperatives, but the result is an elitist radicalism whose questionable nobility (questionable because it still believes itself to be radical) is confirmed by an act of artistic transgression at a once powerful institution that, apparently no longer sure of its own values or too bewildered to care, has become a party to its own desecration. As the Louvre was once a book in which artists learned to read, the Metropolitan had for some of us become a house in which we sharpened our memories and learned not to forget. I mourn the passing of the old order at the Met; the collection is inviolate, of course, but the old ambience has been destroyed.

What makes it so difficult to accept the presence of the F-111 at the august Metropolitan is the fact that it is both unnecessary and inevitable. Some reform was perhaps needed at the Metropolitan. Its collection of relatively recent modernist art, notoriously limited, acknowledges mainly an obligation rather than serious historical interest, or even the respect it once showed paintings like September Morn. But whatever ailed it, so drastic a cure was hardly required. Rape is not the most satisfactory form of accommodation. In fact, since no one expects and many do not desire the Met to contain a self-sufficient museum of modern art, its shortcomings were but a pretext for a dramatic gesture, the motivation for which exists partly in the gesture itself. That is, it represents an estimation of the “life style” of the art world today and is, in fact, a concession, if it does not actually pander, to its pretenses. It is, in other words, a symptom of the taste it serves, a taste in which a spurious progressivism combines with a desire for celebrity. This alone marks the rejection of the Bohemian ethic of alienation. In effect, then, the Metropolitan’s new, young and obviously ambitious director, Thomas P. F. Hoving, morally supported by his eminence grise, Curator of Contemporary American Art, Henry Geldzahler, has compelled the institution he directs to act as a backdrop for a rhetorical gesture that is simultaneously a statement of policy and something of an advertisement for himself.

The presence of the F-111 in the Met is the climax and the ultimate symbol of everything that has happened to and in the avant-garde since the late fifties and early sixties. And if one, at first, tolerated the excesses of the Pop generation because it broke down the monolithic structure of a vanguard sired by Abstract Expressionism and welcomed the liberation from crisis esthetics, one has now to recognize a new tyranny that is worse than the old. I have elsewhere described this as a new philistinism, by which I mean a sensibility crippled by being forced to live in a state of constant anticipation and, finally, expectation, of the “new,” until it becomes self fulfilling, consuming history rather than creating it. There is then a profound irony to what many will take as a “breakthrough” at the Met, and it is all that permits us to hope that it will not mature into a tragedy of spoilation. Personally, I’m not optimistic.

There is meanwhile an artistic side to all this. The presence of the F-111 in the Metropolitan raises questions of function and quality that are especially relevant to the intentions of recent art.

The question of function is raised by the fact that the F-111 is a mural, yet it was not designed for a specific structure, and was even sold piece meal until Collector Robert Scull bought it, by special arrangement, outright. Consequently the work makes no physical sense in the Metropolitan at all. The room in which Rosenquist’s melange of a vast aircraft fuselage punctuated by such kitscherei as a small universe of spaghetti, a large slice of a huge tire, and a gigantic vignette of a banal moppet under a hair-dryer, all in lurid billboard color, in no way coincides, in shape and in architectural detail, with either the concept, size and scale of the mural. The room is both too narrow and too high. The enormous painting, which consists of 51 panels, sits at the bottom of a veritable well. There is some twelve feet or more of air between the top of the work and the ceiling. This presses down on the picture, all but minimizing its scale. Then, too, the painting is made to range unequally around three walls of a narrowish gallery. About two-thirds of it is on a single wall. The rest just continues across a narrow wall and onto the wall opposite the largest section where it ends without any architectural relation. This destroys the decorative possibilities of the mural. Rather, the general effect is of an arbitrariness that is heightened by the fact that the wall on which the major portion rests is a false one, built out some four feet from the actual supporting wall, apparently to lessen the wall space so that the ensemble would seem to cover more. This not only corrupts the architectural integrity of a room which is admittedly nothing more than a plain chamber, but it does not produce the desired effect. Instead, the mural looks like a blanket that is too short for its bed.

On the other hand, however, the Metropolitan, or a like institution, is the only place where the ritualistic meaning of such a homeless mural can be grasped. For while it is physically inadequate, the museum as a public institution provides the proper psychological ambience in which to relate to the work as a cultural symbol rather than merely as art or expression. A mural is also a decoration; that is, it is an ideal representation in which the visual splendor is equivalent to the morality implicit in ideal representation. It is because of this idealizing function of heroic scale that the F-111 is not the sociopolitical polemic that many, including the artist, suppose it to be, but rather a glorification, at least partially, of the ethos of the culture of which as a mural it becomes a symbol. True, there is banality in the work and it has not been transcended, but this flaw is part of the formal inconsistencies of the work which I shall discuss shortly. Here I want to point out mainly that the F-111 is a neo-aristocratic emblem and that to the degree that the Metropolitan liberates its “pretenses,” it (the Metropolitan) assumes the role of patron and the sort of patron that made the fresco cycles of the old masters possible.

The presence, then, of the F-111 in a setting that is a surrogate for “high” patronage, dramatizes a new sense of art or a new sense of the uses of art for public purposes for which existing forms of patronage and, by extension, architecture, are no longer adequate. The F-111 is not the only uncommissioned work of immense size and muralesque ambitions to have been created lately. There is Al Held’s 56-foot Greek Garden, not to mention the interest in public projects by a number of sculptors and the emergence of agents who specialize in soliciting large public projects for artists. What system of patronage can most sensibly absorb these ambitions, and are these ambitions viable in art as it is presently constituted?

Obviously, government and industry would seem the most likely successors to the autocratic patrons, princes and popes; but their participation in modernist art so far savors more of politics and public relations than of cultural enrichment. Now the propaganda element of high art is always an important aspect of its raison d’etre. It only becomes reprehensible when the patron chooses bad art to do the job. So far neither government nor industry can command the finest art. The recent city-wide exhibition of abstractionist sculpture in New York was a travesty of taste because the city was interested only in propaganda and was not very particular about the work that fulfilled the purpose. But the real significance of this act of patronage (with private funds, it should be added) was that the city of New York had to call in “experts” to organize the show. That is, it had to call in representatives of the dealer-critic system to organize an exhibition sponsored by the very sort of patronage that the Critic-dealer system overthrew during the 19th century (as Harrison and Cynthia White have shown in their study of “institutional change in the French painting world,” Canvases and Careers). Similarly, the presence of private dealers in a new market for public monuments swarms with the same contradictions. The old agent served the prince, not the artist. Thus, there is a conflict of artistic and economic systems.

The importance of these contradictions is that they relate to the quality, or lack of it, of recent muralesque and otherwise monumental art. That is, none of it that I know of has been particularly successful as painting. Sociological contradictions seem to translate themselves into formal ones, becoming manifest as a conflict between mural and easel conventions, the history of which I shall outline shortly. In the F-111 this results in a total lack of monumental lines in the composition due to the failure of shape and detail to engage in an organic way. The picture fails to develop real breadth of effect because its structure is essentially that of the montage rather than something fundamentally abstract. Held’s Greek Garden similarly has big shapes but no dominant pattern.

Perhaps it is only logical then that the vocal partisans of Pop art tend to stress its propaganda value rather than quality. Citing the F-111 as “symbol of the industrial-military complex of our times, a paranoiac subject worthy of Dali,” Henry Geldzahler also has declared in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum for March that “the question of quality is irrelevant when one is confronted with the F-111.” Lawrence Alloway, who coined the term “Pop art” in the late fifties as a description of mass communications which was subsequently applied to certain art works, is almost irrationally hostile to what he regards as “academic formal art criticism” which is predicated on traditional notions of “quality.”

Rosenquist himself was so unclear as to the formal status of his work that he permitted it to be sold, panel by panel, until, as I have said, Robert Scull bought the entire work by special arrangement, which was that dealer Leo Castelli reserved the right to cancel the sale of the individual panels—which were no more than souvenirs of the original anyway—if a buyer for the entire painting appeared.

Finally, both Mr. Hoving and Mr. Geldzahler confirm the general confusion by identifying the F-111 with history painting and attempting to substantiate their claim by installing with the F-111 Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, David’s The Death of Socrates and a small version of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. The attempt at historical association was a valid one, and the history genre is also plausible. But the works chosen are easel paintings with none of the decorative significance and architectural implications of the F-111. A far better choice would have been any one of the three huge Tiepolos which the Metropolitan now owns and which, by the way, are also partly giant easel paintings that do not fully satisfy the decorative function of a completely realized mural. In fact their decorative idealism is compromised by an imbalance of realism and design similar to that of the F-111.

Considering the issues raised by the F-111, especially by its installation in a heretofore ideologically neutral museum, the issue of quality, I have to concede, is somewhat secondary, though I am not making excuses for the painting. I mean simply that momentarily the conceptual problem is paramount. The point is that Rosenquist and others are experiencing the impulse to work on a scale and size unprecedented in modernist art, and that either the historical moment or their historical understanding seems to make realization very difficult. Or to put it another way, an integrated sense of style embodying both plastic art and architecture is inconceivable without historical ratification. It does not make sense that there should be a meaningful mural style without an architectural complement. My feeling about the matter is that the fault lies with modernism itself and that a fully organic decorative style that would represent an entire culture once more is not possible without some fundamental changes. And for these to take place, there has to be a better understanding of the modernist past. Specifically it has to be recognized that whereas modernism generally may be historically “inevitable,” it is constantly making counter-proposals to itself. It is important to understand that the revolution of modernism probably centers around the issue of scale.

Modernism achieved its early modernity as an easel style. The 19th century saw an abrupt decline in mural art with the exception of that of Puvis de Chavannes, an all but forgotten artist whose star may soon rise again. But the later modernity of modernism includes a reaction against the purely easel tradition. This was post-Impressionism. Gauguin expressed a desire to do Puvis in color, but just as importantly Cézanne chose Poussin, a painter in the grand manner, to repaint after nature. (There is some justification, then, for Mr. Hoving’s and Mr. Geldzahler’s historical confusion.) In other words, the heroes of both of the modernists were conceptual painters. This provides at least a formal explanation of the internal stress modernism has always felt, the stress, that is, between an art of sensory immediacy and conceptual deportment, between what has been very erroneously misunderstood as “feeling” and the power of a grand Idea. We know the climax of this great internal disorder as Abstract Expressionism, which nonetheless broke through to the first culturally reflexive sense of monumental scale since the end of the 18th century. Still, the conflict between feeling and idea has persisted if only because the sensory bias of modernism has remained dominant. In color painting, the most grandiloquent of modernist styles, art as Idea is preempted by a metaphor of sense experience so extreme, so absolute, one is tempted to say, that it has atomized all of the traditional components of a picture. Line, shape, movement, pattern and space are assimilated to the single effect of intense chromatic sensation. Thus what appears to be the apotheosis of modernist sensibility is simultaneously self-limiting to the extent that further reduction of depicted shapes, further complex simplicity (neé reductiveness) seems precluded.

All other art since the late 1950s, art, that is, that has regarded traditional modernism with conceptual esteem while seeking to reformulate it, has been art that in some way anticipated the crisis of reductiveness. It is art that has operated to a disadvantage to the extent that the decorative splendor attained with abstractionist techniques cannot be successfully challenged by any less abstract style. Therefore, art which has not been abstract has had to be something else. At the same time, the greater its distance from the abstract, the greater its disadvantage in rephrasing modernist sensibility. Consequently, the shaped canvas has met the crisis of reductiveness in terms most resembling traditional abstractionist ones while the almost criminally misunderstood figurative art has the least similarity.

But Pop art has tried to have it both ways and has been obliged to camouflage what is basically an old fashioned conflict between form and content with its now characteristic and sometimes corrosive irony. The subject matter employed by an artist like Rosenquist is deliberately ignoble because the artist cannot formally live up to the idealism implicit in his will to monumental scale. His subject matter therefore implies the lack of meaningful narrative which he cannot begin to imagine because the structure he employs—a variant of synthetic Cubism—precludes those illustrative values which are a prerequisite to the expression of sentiment. Picasso’s Guernica fails to generate emotional power for the same reason. Thus despite the artist’s denial, according to Mr. Geldzahler, that it was his intention to paint heroically, the fact is that he has tried to and failed. The fact also is that he has painted better pictures on a smaller scale, and that much of his work since the completion of the F-111 seems uncertain in scale and therefore fragmentary.

On the other hand, militant abstractionism, obsessed with its own “inevitability” seems more involved with a desire for apotheosis than the intrinsic limits of its formal concept.

In sum, the appearance of a Pop mural at the Metropolitan Museum is part farce, part high drama, evoking as it does the crisis of high art in our time. The final irony, and truth, may be, that perhaps the right thing has occurred but for all the wrong reasons.

Sidney Tillim