PRINT May 1973

No/Yes on the West Coast

YES: IT SURE WAS NICE to talk into those galleries, after all this crap—information pieces, body pieces, Process pieces, etc.—and see some nice white walls with some pictures hung up on them.

No: Who needs it? Hasn’t it been done a hundred times: artists cranking out their little pictures, hoping to make a killing on them?

None of that matters when you look at, say, the big white Bengston on the back wall: a great big silvery white field whipped across with swirls of white and light pink and these graceful, crisp, blue flings; a luscious dark square in the middle, brown, with continuations of the same blue from the outside. It’s breathtaking, with no complications.

And there you have it: Southern California art-merchandising of what was the passion that killed Pollock in 1956. Pollock flung paint because he had something eating his gut; Billy does it because he knows he can make something sweet out of it.

What’s wrong with that? Somebody’s gotta do pretty things; everything can’t be structurally heavy.

Twenty years after it was heavy, it becomes pretty.

But it’s pretty in spades, inventively pretty. Bengston does all kinds of tricks with paint. Swirls—heavy, light, crisscrossing, masked out, interruptions; clear over opaque and vice versa; different treatments for the iris/Dracula motif—painted in, painted out, painted like it was cut out and pasted on; a foaming surface. Everything you can do is done.

That just proves how decadent painting is. Nobody can paint a straight picture that says anything anymore. There has to be some kind of gimmick now—paint tricks, “soft” formats, staples in the wall, paper, cloth, glitter, cutouts, draping—which makes apparent how bankrupt the whole enterprise is. There’s nothing to say anymore. Looking back, we can see that Abstract Expressionism was painting straining under its own inadequacies, becoming, as the linguists say, a signifier without a signified. And that was AE—passionate and genuine. But then we got all those stripes and stains, all those art history diagrams, which were ten times worse than AE. Now you don’t even have that; you’ve got these inane revivals of AE, taking quick frozen pieces of it out of the freezer, thawing it, and using it in the recipe.

What’s wrong with a little inside move? It goes against the grain with everybody expecting another breakthrough—abandoning painting, writing up proposals, plugging them in. Everybody expects your card-carrying avant-garde artist to take the requisite one more step to the left. So why not give ’em a head-fake, and go to the right?

Then you admit that everything is seen in the historical situation? A second ago you were talking about how lovely the colors and paint were, and now you’re admitting that Bengston’s paintings are really art-strategies. You suggest that they’re a form of Conceptual art.

No, I don’t admit that. I was just using the historical situation—really the art-world situation —to illustrate that Bengston takes risks. Just like the non-object artist takes the risk of doing away with physicality, a real artist rejects that expectation because it is so obligatory. Instead he takes the inside move and does something that has all the appearances of being reactionary. Bengston makes a move back toward formalism when formalism is supposed to be bankrupt; he operates in the cul-de-sac where great art has always been made.

Do you honestly think these pictures were made for that reason? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to suppose these pictures were done this way because this isn’t New York—because we’re out in the provinces and out in the provinces these things are still considered hot-shot art? You’re giving them an awful lot of credit; you’re trying to say, “They look so bad they’re probably good,” and that the artist is so hip he knows all the ins and outs and does something purposely so bad it’ll come out art. That just isn’t believable.

Well, that’s how it is unless you think that being in the provinces means you have to be a reactionary or a decorator rather than some kind of imitation SoHo heavy.

At least you concede the reactionary decoration. But your context—a center of heavy stuff and a fringe of provinces which don’t catch on until later—is necessarily tied to the old art, where you had to wait for traveling shows or your yearly sojourn to New York to see the stuff. The new art is instantaneous: word, letter, phone call, telegram, and print-out. You can now have heavy artists in the provinces the same way you can have heavy scientists in those boondock university towns. They don’t have to go to art bars to see each other, or snoop in each other’s laboratories; all they have to do is be in on the same computer terminals, read professional journals, attend a conference or two, and they’ve got the data. The new art travels the same way that scientific information does.

That’s Popular Mechanics horseshit, like “Someday we’ll all fly to work in gyrocopters.” You’re always going to come back to one person face-to-face with something that isn’t him/her, in an intimate, real, palpable space. All that stuff about, “Golly-gosh, kids, we’ve got computers, terminals, Art and Technology, and spacy guys jetting in from Germany” is a lot of bullshit. It’s always going to come down to one-to-one; and I’d certainly rather go one-to-one with a Clyfford Still or a Francis Bacon, with a Billy AI Bengston or a Hassel Smith, for enlightenment than some failed physicist’s cute enigmas. I like the taste in the Bengstons—the colors, and titles. It’s a studio kind of taste—putting nice colors and paint together, and nice words to go with it, like Agua Caliente. It’s a painter’s thing.

It just proves how reactionary the whole enterprise is: sweet pictures and sweet titles.

Everything has its manufacturing ambience. The smell of sweat, blast furnaces, cigars, and hard hats goes along with a Richard Serra, and is part of the attraction of the work. In the same way Oppenheims, Bochners, Rockburnes, have their own auras. In Bengston’s pictures, there’s a feel of the studio business—bright light in the morning, making coffee, mixing up the acrylic with that sweet, organic smell Rolplex has.

That, too, is romantic horseshit. Art is art, and what counts is the thing, and what doesn’t count is its reviving for somebody the ambience of student days, or starting out in a cold-water loft. What counts is what’s there, and in Bengston’s case, it’s a little weak.

No. Bengston’s paintings, like all good paintings, say the hell with the art-world pseudo-necessity of being advanced or structurally different. A painting fails if it’s decorative, if it’s just an exercise in technique, which a lot of painting which tries to be structurally new ends up being. Painting that tries to feed in a little Process and Conceptual art ends up saying, “Look at me, I’m all made up of little beads,” or “Look at me, I’m all made up of little stained ribbons, and not much else.” On the other hand, painting which gets too tied up in metaphor or storytelling isn’t much to look at. The case for Bengston’s paintings is not that they tread a middle line between look and meaning, but that they manage to negotiate both these polarities. That iris/Dracula thing says something; it’s a fortunate combination that Bengston hit on early—the little three-pronged flower shape just goes with the way the word Dracula bobbles off your lips. How it works, God only knows. The central esthetic problem in these paintings, then, is surrounding the iris with a color-form-paint context. Each one casts a different mood, from the big white and blue one, to the wine red ones, to the blackish green ones, the little iris, fragile as it is, comes through. Maybe that’s the poem of the paintings—that the iris/Dracula, no matter what the flora and fauna around it, comes through.

And maybe that’s the case for the pictures being merely precious. Maybe Bengston has nothing to say, so he drags up an old motif, and renders it in a decorative fashion. People have been up against so much head-banging art lately, they long for something safe and pretty. And Pollock keeps coming up. Here’s a method of picture-making that cost Pollock part of his head and maybe his life, and here’s some guy, 20 years later, making a schtick out of it. So they’re perfect L.A. art objects displaying only Bengston’s considerable manual facility. It’s like Pollock’s paintings are a tomcat, with miss· ing teeth, scabs, fleas; and Bengston’s are a fixed angora house cat, with a ribbon, pillow, and bell. Who needs it? Who needs these things clogging up walls?

Art needs it, that’s who. You see paintings as points on your little graph of art history moving somewhere, and you’re itching to stick more pins in and get to the edge, so you don’t want to diddle around with a familiar type. Well, art isn’t a matter of types; it’s specific. one-on-one. Somebody’s gotta do things you can just go in and look at and contemplate, something that’s portable enough to take home and live with. Somebody like Bengston or Smith has to do those things well, or we’ll lose something very fundamental to art.

Smith’s paintings are awful. The reason somebody could like them is because of sentiment about this guy, a pioneer West Coast AE painter who packed up and went to England, now everybody wants to go see in order to vicariously relive a history they never shared.

They’re humble, courageous paintings especially because of what they reject. They’re exactly what paintings should be: physically restrained poems involved with shape, color, paint surface, and arrangement!

They’re examples of what happens when you hide out. You get echoes of Alfred Jensen, Hans Hofmann, and maybe Klee. You get the remains of sensibility—that beautiful, calligraphic stroke codified into little arc fragments scattered about like hairs fallen out of the brushes.

I’ll admit a couple of them are not so hot, but the complicated ones—the ones with the circles, triangles, and hourglass shapes- are beautiful paintings. The smaller one—the one with browns, grays, whites, and thin pinks—is a balance of austerity and complexity: The figure-ground thing flickers back and forth, the colors glow. I can’t prove it but it’s there.

What can it possibly mean?

It says, “I’m a little painting from England come over here to give you, as economically as possible, some glimpse into universal order.”

Crap! Anything can give you a glimpse of universal order.

Certainly some happenstance combination view of the streetcar tracks being torn up on Santa Monica Boulevard might give this insight, but a painting by Hassel Smith shows you how the artist’s eye and brain and soul perceive the universe as being ordered. It’s Hassel Smith’s universe. Can’t you feel anything? Can’t you see where the guy makes a pink, but he doesn’t just mix it up in a can? Can’t you see how he purposely contradicts himself: pink that’s not pink, white that’s not white, thousands of little brush strokes and buried lines? It’s got outlines that aren’t outlines; it’s big and wants to expand, but is locked in and can’t expand. Can’t you feel the painter doing these things? Don’t you have any eyes? It says millions of things, all at once. The history of real painting is so rich and the possibilities so great that words can’t begin to get at it. Its fault is not that it has nothing to say, but that it strives to say too much.

Oh, come on. Every special hobbyists’ group—from scuba divers to stamp collectors—has its own special sensibilities it thinks are wonderful, and damned important. The ones belonging to painters are no better or worse than the others; so why should we care about one hobby group’s craft nostalgia? That’s all it is. Can’t you see that the structure is just drained out? Sure, there are millions of little messages for the initiated, connoisseurs of paint· ing. But the messages are, in any real life sense, trivial; and that audience of acolytes is such a fading and inconsequential group.

Then you’re arguing for might-makes-right. If you expand the context, you’ll have to argue for popular art: the Keanes, Robert Wood, Bob Peak, Peter Max, and Andrew Wyeth. Certainly Process and Conceptual art appeals to an audience at least as hermetic as abstract painting’s.

It’s a question of vitality. One audience is on the way up, the other on the way down. The newer work has a grit to it—objective issues and answers—like painting used to have 20 years ago. They’ll stick for a while. All you’ve got in painting are these picayune items: Bengston’s bubbles, Smith’s feathering stroke, Bengston’s playing with AE, Smith’s genealogy of line. Bengston and Smith are merely summing up the decadences of abstract painting in tender and sentimental ways. Nice try, but no cigar.

There is your historical bias. You’re playing some kind of game with the history of art, a game which has nothing to do with what the work is. You care how it’s going to turn out in a textbook 20 years from now. You’re not looking at those paintings, you’re betting against them. Sure, all the odds are weighted against them. Sure, in ten years somebody’ll be pointing to a corpse holding a video-recorder and saying, “Here’s where it was really at in 1973.” Who the hell cares about that, except all the hangers-on angling for reputations of being early supporters of far-out art? Is that why we really paint to begin with? To play that crummy game? Historical speculation? If that’s the case, then the Conceptualists are dead right in doing away with all that cumbersome physicality. But they’re also dead wrong because of a built-in paradox in this history game: if a work of art means something only in terms of the place it grabs in the historical parade, then the historical parade is without substance, and the art which makes it up is doubly worthless—esthetically and historically.

That’s the kind of argument you used to get from people who painted social protest pictures: “Stop pushing painting into the future with all this AE stuff; let’s get back to the immutables, like the worker’s life.”

Is that all we’ve got to discuss: painting or no painting? What about the individual merits of specific paintings?

If the premise is shopworn and corrupt, why bother with particulars? If abstract painting is practically dead and buried, why bother with going over the pictures and saying, “Oh, look at this pink against this green,” and gushing over this nuance against that one.

You, sir, with no soul, have no sense of transcendence.

And you, sir, with no brain, have no inkling of reality.

Peter Plagens