PRINT April 1973

Occupational Hazard

The ideal of Independence requires resistance to the herd spirit now so widespread, to our worship of quantity and indifference to quality, to our unthinking devotion to organization, standardization, propaganda, and advertising.
— Daniel Gregory Mason, Artistic Ideals

ARTISTS CAN BE GOOD CRITICS, or more generally, they can write interestingly about art or attendant matters. Within even that thin slice of the art historical pie cut from Abstract Expressionism to the present, are suspended some pretty chewy morsels from Robert Smithson, Lucas Samaras, Claes Oldenburg, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Morris, and a few others. The more iffy question is: Can a regular writer on esthetic issues make art worth looking at? Of course, a good artist is an exception to type, and it depends on what artist, what writing, and what issues at hand; but there is an instructive contrast of intentions in criticism and art. Generally, criticism attempts to systematize where art attempts to specify, and criticism does it in two ways: 1) sympathetic, semiproselytizing interpretation of new developments; and 2) playing defense—swatting away any unworthy projects aspiring to art and giving “quality” lessons to their perpetrators. Artists, on the other hand, are always mischievously biting the hand of the former and toppling the houses-of-cards of the latter. (Some artists—Mondrian, Hofmann, Reinhardt—seem as harsh as defensive: critics regarding bad/false/decadent/anti art, but the theories under which they operate—“Dynamic Symmetry,” “Push-Pull,” and “Art-as-art-as-art”—were as subversive as unexplained works by, say, Dennis Oppenheim, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Gilbert & George, or, in a tiny way, an oddball painting like Primer #1 [1964] by Walter Darby Bannard himself.)

It’s easy to see why a critic would want to be an artist, but why would an artist (especially a heavily collected painter with a first-rate dealer) want to be a critic? Most of the reasons coming readily to mind could well be satisfied by the art (and getting the art out) itself—except one, which I know well. When I was a kid I would frequently, involuntarily suffer seizures of what the existentialists call distancing; at the dinner table my eyes would go suddenly glassy and my mother would say to my father, “George, he’s got that look again.” I saw as if through the wrong end of a telescope: “You all look so little,” I would say, indicating everyone else seemed to me to be laboratory smears, specimens of some foreign activity which held for me only detached, aloof interest. To apply this to the art world: Nobody believes anymore that the world will be liberated through formalist art—colored squares charting the harmonies of the universe, stainless steel sculptures in workers’ housing projects, or political posters rendered profound through “a line taking a walk” or some such—and those of us (like Bannard, like myself) who still practice this aggregate of socially meaningless, intellectualized crafts (why don’t they change the name of the art department to “decorative sciences”?) are sometimes struck by the same distancing—all those far away artists, daubing, welding, pouring, staining, bolting, hanging, selling, framing, shipping, polishing, look so “little” in their incomprehensible, self-justifying activity. When our eyeballs roll back at our own superfluousness, producing more paintings or sculptures is useless; only writing gets it off our chests. My particular style is mea culpa, while Bannard retires to the formalist club where there’s a portrait of Clement Greenberg hanging above a leather armchair and somebody saying over a drink of good whiskey, “By gad sir, somebody’s got to defend the hearth against these ruffians and layabouts!” (The real world impoverishment of formalist art has been used as a prop to support the multifarious “styles Harold Rosenberg inveighs against as a ”de-definition“ of art: post-Minimalism, Process, Concept, and body art. The glaring failure of the ”de-definition" styles is their utter inability—aside from extracurricular events like the Art Strike of 1970—to make more of a dent in the real world than the formalist painting and sculpture accused of being hermetically bourgeoise. At least Bannard’s sort of art doesn’t require video outfits, squads of assistants and carpenters, special wiring, first-class airfare, neon tubing, bulldozers, and the collusion of corporate America to do the same old thing—titillate a small audience of the already initiated.)

Bannard is essentially a defensive critic. With a conscientiously commonsensical structure and deceptively simple language, he pleads a continuing case for a) a rigorous, thoughtful art of physical/optical economy (and, conjunctively, staying away from the flimflam, bright lights, and intellectual trendiness of Pop, Minimal, and the “de-definition” styles), and b) owning up to an inevitable quality hierarchy and trying to make it as accurate as possible. The poles of his negativism and optimism are struck in the following quotes:

And so we have the spectacle of mighty art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art loaded to the hatches with chichi junk, like Marisol sculpture, hideous Wesselmann paintings, the grim idiocy of Lucas Samaras, all kinds of bobbling, clicking, flashing and wiggling things, and exhibitions of photographs of gigantic earth and sky “works” which are as destructive as they are silly.
— “Notes on American Painting of the Sixties,” Artforum, January, 1970

The new art [post-Abstract Expressionist abstract painting], its roots deep in the great art of the recent past, will leave behind it the frivolity and fussiness of the fad styles of the sixties and the puritan restrictions of Old Mother Cubism. It will be as bright as it is balanced, as permissive as it is secure, a natural embracing of all the natural materials of painting, an American analog to the beautiful painting of the French Impressionists a hundred years behind us.

In the three years since, Bannard’s writing has become a little more sour (he used to be darkly funny when he was negative) because his nemesis has grown more grotesque and powerful in the interim; if the spectacle of a MoMA crammed with Pop/Minimal/Kinetic white elephants was depressing, the specter of its premises festooned with epistemological memorabilia and autotherapeutic sado-masochism is cause for hiding all the sharp objects in his bathroom. But grimly, indefatigably, he presses on, maintaining there is such a thing as “quality” in art independent of fads, mass audience appeal, novelty, technology, and art history, and this “quality” manifested in works of art is sufficient reason for art to go on physically, more or less, as always. (Bannard adheres to at least one admirable consistency as a critic: He never nostalgically invokes the same historical-innovative citation on a safely “past” artist he admires—e.g. Hofmann as the first to “drip”—that he disdains in the present—e.g. the “breakthrough” to Earthworks; when he exposits the virtues of Jules Olitski or Ron Davis he is as painstakingly visual as words allow.)

What effect does Bannard’s art writing have on his performance as a painter? Although it’s impossible to tell specifically (i.e. a certain essay on a particular batch of paintings), it appears on the basis of a good, modest exhibition, “Paintings by Walter Darby Bannard in California Collections” at the Newport Harbor Art Museum that Bannard’s critical bent of extracting guideposts to quality from art of the recent past renders him somewhat cautious as a painter; it’s as if he were his own tough painting professor, simultaneously trying hard as hell as a painting student not to get himself flunked. In correspondence Bannard told me (regarding the “quality” problem discussed by himself and Bruce Boice in a recent issue) that the Greenbergian “rules” behind recent formalist art just don’t exist; although the matter is still under litigation, Bannard paints by “rules” more than inspiration, whether he makes them up or gets them from someplace else.

1. Relational Painting
If successful abstract painting is more-or-less relational, as is indeed the case, then the parts of the painting should relate, and the fewer obstacles the better. This may not be necessarily true, but I take it to be self-evident. It has certainly been true in my experience as a painter and as a close observer of painting. All of the essays to which I have been referring work around this principle, and all of the recent painting which I feel is great painting has a solidly constructed contrivance to freely relate the areas of the painted surface.

To me this means you can’t get good paintings by overall surface incident, or shapes governed by subject matter or Pop art impact, rather than relational composition. Avoidance of the foregoing (with backslidings such as Louvain Lights, 1969, which looks like lyrical abstraction to me) isn’t enough, however; Bannard seems to hedge against corny graphic composition (such as Motherwell’s, I suspect not a favorite of Bannard’s) with semisystems of grids and arcs making those rounded triangles like the flywheels in Wankel engines. Relationally, the best painting is By the River, 1967, in which Bannard allows some of the darker shapes to coalesce into a clumsy, “bad” shallow “V” across the picture.

2. The Edge
The edge must be accommodated by design because it is the strongest single factor of design of the surface, and the elements of the surface tend to become isolated across the resistant flatness of two dimensions.

There is a formalist conceit about the word “must” which is probably irrelevant here: What will happen if the edge isn’t accommodated? (Bad paintings will result.) What will happen if the market is flooded with bad paintings? (Our heritage of art quality will be eroded.) How will that hurt us? (The commercial artists and greeting card designers who eventually benefit from the trickling down of art quality will have less to inspire them, and all our lives will be touched with even worse everyday art.) Oh. Otherwise, it’s the most reasonable postulate, with two quibbles. First, some of the best abstract painting within my memory (Pollock, Newman) tried to annihilate rather than accommodate the edge. Second, this consideration seems to drive Bannard’s painting into an aggressively middle-of-the-road size which, combined with his tastes for pastels and texturelessness, deprives the work of needed punch. (I know this is the most corrupted of judgments, but punch is the reason these aren’t 22“ x 30” gouaches, isn’t it?)

3. Simplicity
I have always assumed as self-evident that the mutual isolation of picture units weakens a painting. It is easy to get agreement to this assumption because it seems right. It has always been my experience that isolated picture units render failed art.
— “Color Painting and the Map Problem,” Artforum, March, 1970

And, a little further on in the same article, Bannard states the problem exactly:

No more than four color areas can share each other’s borders. This means that a fifth color area added to any conglomerate of four other areas must be separate from at least one of these colors. (Italics his.)

Bannard clearly does not insist that no more than four color areas be used in a single painting, but he makes an effort to keep complexity at bay in his own work . . . until, that is, his belated discovery of the obvious subjectivity of color area—that sometimes a thousand of ’em splattered over a surface read as a grainy field, or that with stains it’s hard to specify boundaries. Most of Bannard’s ’60s paintings, because of this enforced, quasi-logical simplicity, point out his pervading virtue and drawback: elegance but studiousness.

4. Color
The colors [in the earliest paintings] were carefully chosen, and usually were greyish, for reasons still not clear to me.
— “Notes for This Exhibition,”
Newport Harbor Art Museum
Balboa, California

Although Bannard never capsules it, you get the idea from “Color, Paint, and Present-Day Painting” (Artforum, April 1966) that Bannard is pretty clear on why he prefers pastels: For close-order juxtapositions and color-matching necessary to his analytical esthetic, opaque tints are the best tool. Other writings contain other intimations that good painting is built upon similar dispositions and that one thing wrong with a lot of current painting is a slapdash imprecision of color. For all his knowledge about it, color represents the biggest flaw in Bannard’s work; it’s like those color-aid paper exercises in art school—you can’t lose with that kind of color. It isn’t that it doesn’t look “good” (even when the hue systems traveling the surface don’t work), it’s that it isn’t capable of looking “bad.” But color—unless it’s enslaved to that silly pictorial space we thought would keep us heterosexual in the ’50s—is a matter of taste, or lack of it; to me, some of the best painting teeters on the verge of chromatic “awfulness”—Lobdell, Guston—or neo-plastic corniness—Diller, Jensen.

But Bannard’s apparent weaknesses as a painter are, all things considered, relatively minor; in this simple exhibition of moderately scaled paintings in a modest, crisp, unpretentious museum space there is an uncanny glow, as if all these chalky paintings were poised to lift themselves off the canvases and become the purely poetic entities Bannard, for all his schoolmasterishness, intuitively intends. (Abstract painting must be harder on itself than “de-definition” art for the same reason a free press has to raise more stink about its few jailed reporters than a state press—it’s got more to lose with smaller mistakes.) Bannard is ten times better than Dan Christensen, who is a hundred times better than William Pettet, who is a thousand times better than Ronnie Landfield, who is a million times better than Showell, and so on. Why then 2,000 words of picayunishness against this last, perfunctorily upbeat paragraph? It is most likely because of Bannard’s lack of mysteriousness, showmanship, enigma, charisma generated from his generosity in trying, like a tweedy English teacher trying to explain simple adverbs to a bunch of spaced-out flower children (the artists, critics, and curators of a “de-defined” art world). After all, how many hip, tough, ingenues in SoHo or Venice have laid it on the line that clearly what their stuff is about? The real subject here is not, however, a review of Bannard’s last eight years of painting; it is the artist’s problems, raised by having/assuming/practicing a critical mentality. I suspect that most of us who are artists and who write art criticism do it not so much because we make money at it, get our names in print, or exercise power over other artists, but because we are somehow burdened with a middle-class ethic of good citizenship—take into consideration the work of others, construct a sturdy system of beliefs before you act, defend yourself willingly in open court, and try to cleave to some sort of standards. The nagging suspicion that such relative priggishness is extraneous, if not debilitating, to the making of truly poetic art is, frankly, horrifying.

––Peter Plagens