PRINT October 1973

Art Economics and the Whitney Drawing Show

WHAT ARE THE CULTURAL SUPPOSITIONS implicit in the definition of the art object? Are the perceptions of particular works ordered by the contexts in which they are seen? Do current economic and art-political support structures reflect or determine values?

Such questions must be posed whenever the conventions and procedures of art remain unchallenged as inherited cultural categories. Donald Judd’s dictum that “anything the artist calls art is art” is a Duchampian cliché that betrays an ethnocentric bias; it assumes that the identification of the artist with an act of volition leads by definition to the production of “art.” The evaluation of such art has little to do with such assertions. Recent attempts to define the conventions or “paradigms” of art (Art-Language, analytic art, some art criticism) also fail to recognize the ethnocentric solipsism of this attitude. The analyses of the art activity as “objective” information are grounded upon a Western philosophical view of the artist within our culture, and that the artist has an established economic position within society. This attitude is predicated upon the idea of the artwork as unique, to he saved and cared for as a valuable cultural inheritance. This assigns all work a potential market value based on scarcity, demand, and future appreciation. While the supporting institutions (public and private consumerism) are in constant change, economics—even before philosophy and esthetics—remains the basis for the distribution and evaluation of art. Economics in art is not strictly monetary. It means as well the determination of value through the consumption of art. This perhaps is the real structure upon which decisions of “quality” are made.

Contemporary economic support systems operate through galleries, public and private collections, magazines, schools, auction houses, etc. Although art must be “unique,” it may vary only to the limits of what has been designated as art, those endorsed limits qualified by current institutions. For example, the museum, with its wide and deep historical span, presents a view of what has been determined valuable by means of selective display, and perpetuates these interpretations through purchases and acceptance of gifts. Commercial galleries extend the historical span by presenting contemporary work that informs the value of past art by engaging or rejecting traditions. Magazines, sensitive to short-term changes, have the widest contemporary scope as they reflect or support current issues in immediate art-political and economic evaluations. The fluctuations registered through criticism and contemporary situations show greater variations of taste than do museums. However, museums operate upon similar premises to magazines and galleries and, therefore, their disagreements are generally minor.

Large museum group exhibitions tend toward the reproduction and perpetuation of the current norms sponsored in magazines and galleries. An arch example would be the recent exhibition at the Whitney, “American Drawings 1963–73,” organized by Elke Solomon. A large survey, the Whitney show includes 87 artists, most of whom are represented by two or three drawings. (An interesting facet of the art world is the competition between institutions. Curators, like editors of different journals, “edit” their view of the same phenomenon. For example, after the first drawing exhibition on recent art at the New York Cultural Center early in 1973, the Whitney follows with this exhibition, and it is understood that the Guggenheim is planning a third exhibition in the near future based upon an alternative reading. The Cultural Center show extended the possibility of drawing along conceptual lines, drawing as a mapping of intentions. The Whitney show seems to derive its attitude toward drawing from a popularist viewpoint—cramming as diverse a selection as possible within a given space. One wonders what “editorial” viewpoint the Guggenheim show will reflect. That three museums in New York should present major drawing shows within a short span of time covering a somewhat similar range of artists not only reveals a waste of resources, but an inversion of the educational role of the museum for curatorial one-upmanship.) In the Whitney show, the inclusion of more than one work by each artist is an improvement over its model, the Whitney Annual of painting and sculpture. This exhibition also seems to provide an overall picture of American art without favoritism or comment. Consequently, Solomon’s organization of the vast exhibition reflects an indiscriminate diversity based as it is upon what is already known through the media. The drawings seem to be chosen as substitutes for “real” or more complete work—the painters are represented by drawings that appear to be studies for finished works, while many sculptors and environmental artists are represented by pictorial drawings for their actual pieces. Emphasis is placed on traditional consequences of drawing—the conventional gratifications of pencil and crayon in familiar spatial and illusionistic contexts.

Retrograde visual conventions dominate the show. The most apparent is a ’50s-generated abstract style, expressionist in handling, referring to landscape, and derived primarily from Matisse and shallow Cubist space. Included, among others, are Joan Mitchell, Alan Cote, Claes Oldenburg, and Mark di Suvero. Despite the range of these artists, their graphic work is similar in its use of loose painterly marks. Another popular mode is the media-generated image inherited from the ’60s—comic books from Classical to Zap (Roy Lichtenstein, William Wiley, Jim Nutt, and H.C. Westermann), the kitschy reproduction (Audrey Flack, Joe Brainard), and the post-photographic conventions of oblique angles, sharp cuts, and Polaroid intimacy (Chuck Close, Yvonne Jacquette, Vija Celmins, Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, and Janet Fish). A third predominant format, emerging from Pop and Minimal art, is the grid, by now a conventionalized diagrammatic structure employed for narrative and nonnarrative content. This exhibition indicates the transmission of this device from artists like Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, and Sol LeWitt, to its current use in the work of Jennifer Bartlett, Arlene Slavin, Loretta Dunkelman, and Elizabeth Murray where, generally speaking, it has been wrenched from its structural foundation. Related to the grid is the use of numerical systems and orderings by means of the alphabet or methods borrowed from science and mathematics. Number and counting are frequently part of the visual information though not necessarily with explicit arithmetical progressions. Artists such as Michael Heizer and James Rosenquist, for example, use ostensive numerical pictures which seem to be detached from an original function that is retained in the alphabets of Jasper Johns.

These categories merely indicate some of the formats that are current; the isolation of these conventions perpetuated in the selection of drawings is compounded by the hanging of the show. The installation reinforces the stereotyped versions of stylistic categories seen in the media. To hang Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Rosenquist together (even though Motherwell and Tworkov have been included in the grouping) is less informative than perhaps to have placed Brice Marden or Mel Bochner next to Johns, and Joan Snyder or Joel Shapiro next to Twombly. Roy Lichtenstein, whose drawings are overwhelmed by the comic-book artists, would have benefited by a position near Rauschenberg so as to reveal a richer iconographic framework.

Another repeated grouping includes Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockburne, and Mel Bochner. If the intention of the exhibition, as evident in other sections, is to illuminate genealogical and iconographical similarities between the work, why is Eva Hesse, whose grid drawings are seminal to this structure, not included here? Brice Marden’s drawings, which investigate shape and properties of graphic material, are also excluded from this section and hung with artists like Jake Berthot, thereby suggesting a misreading of Marden’s art as painterly and romantic. The exhibition also fails to recognize prime influences of the last decade, such as Frank Stella and Larry Poons, the latter artist’s dot drawings being the prototypes for many works in the show (including Arlene Slavin, Barry Le Va, Joel Shapiro, and Patrick Ireland).

The predominance of received categories indicates the enclosure of the art culture within an economic structure which is conservative, entropic, and against the reflective intent of the art itself. When the value of certain formal issues is assured by the influence upon later artists, an interest in the prime innovative moments appears and we discover a movement from criticism to history. In art economics, as in art history, the present informs the past. By the time formal ideas are recognized as original, they have become so conventionalized that they convey a quasi-representational or narrative content that employs formerly abstract structures (such as those mentioned above) as hollow norms and empty scaffoldings. This is antithetical to genuinely abstract work in which convergences of form and idea alter the very foundations and premises of art.

It is disappointing that this drawing exhibition stresses conventional modes because drawing, as well as being an area of consummate performance, is closer to the processes of thinking and intuition than other art forms. As tactile, ideational, or visual maps that indicate—instead of represent—the projection of ideas, drawings provide sensuous conceptual models capable of altering the limits of abstraction. The objectification of mark and meaning often demonstrates many significations while revealing the points of origin of first-order perceptions.

Extracted from the debilitating contexts, there are, however, several excellent drawings in the Whitney show. Jasper Johns’ drawings, for example, use what appear to be traditional pictorial methods in ironical juxtaposition with hyperbolic references to devices and processes of drawing. In Wilderness II, 1963, the ruler, the cast hand with a rag in a picture frame, and the drawn brush hanging from a drawn wire, are instruments of measure and signature in both literal and. illusionistic form. The draftsmanship ranges from sloppy to refined, but since there is no standard by which to rate the execution, evaluation of quality is left in the hand of the artist himself. In Target with Four Faces, 1968, elegant in drawing, with Italian-like sepia chalk visible through the graphite, the reversal of the printed word “face” provokes the illusion that the viewer is looking out from behind the painting. This parallels the placement of the cast faces in the 1955 painting of this subject, which are literally behind the front plane. Through this act, the surface of a drawing covered with dense markings becomes a transparent glass and creates a paradox—a target cannot be seen or shot at from the rear so that instead of being the object of aim, this one seems to look out toward some other mark. The wit of Johns’ work lies in his use of conventional media to transform the premises from which they are generated. Cy Twombly’s drawings also involve the activity and properties of drawing as drawing, but in a manner more physical than conceptual. He studies drawing at its foundation—the making of marks—taking scribbles to the essence of sensibility without allowing them to transcend a rudimentary state toward more reflective meaning.

Several drawings in the exhibition are fine performances in a more academic tradition. Alex Katz’ portrait heads, particularly Portrait of Anne, 1972, and Portrait of Sylvia, 1973, are articulate in the use of pencil for description—the pencil is a vehicle for the representation of sensuous texture. Jack Beal’s Self-Portrait, 1972, presents an energetic and Baroque pictorialism (particularly the artist’s corduroy cap) that rejects post-photographic modes of representation for the experience of the form in space. Katz and Beal use conventions of figuration that yield novel information only through practice and mastery of the discipline, while retaining a particularity of observation that announce their derivation from academic representationalism.

Other interesting drawings in the show are blueprints or maps that resolve literal spatial situations to two dimensions. In this mode of concretization, drawing is polar to performance—it is the by-product, working plan, or record of the physical piece rather than a practiced response to the medium as an end in itself. It has only been in the last decade that the sheer visibility of such drawing and its capacity to inform the three-dimensional work has been understood. Dan Flavin’s diagram for his installation in St. Louis, 1972, and Barry Le Va’s drawings for Intersecting Circle Series, 1970 and 1973, show the independent strength of the map as a picture. Conceptual in implying rather than depicting form, the two-dimensional resolutions converge with the three-dimensional information as if projecting data into another perspective. These drawings employ literal data instead of using conventionalized pictorial means to mimic illusionistic space.

The most original drawings in the exhibition investigate processes and ideation. Dorothea Rockburne, for example, explores a visual and formal logic, beginning with a set of premises that act as rules for the possible moves within the work. The concrete results are open-ended rather than tied to an a priori system. The visual information reveals “logical” permutations independent of verbal and symbolic logic. A transformation of the vocabulary of drawing (line as fold and edge) results from the use of process at the heart of the work. In this sense “process” suggests the transitivity of thought rather than the malleability of material—a thinking which is reversible, extraverbal, and multidimensional in its formal signification.

Mel Bochner’s work is possibly less systematic in procedure. Instead of locating formal value in the investigation of logical methods, he questions the reasons for the performance of operations, instituting hitherto unexamined hypotheses as the subject for drawing. Centers Estimated and Measured, 1972, focuses on the difference between the approximate and the exact. While actual measurement would posit only one true center, both are equally correct, depending on one’s point of reference. The visual data, derived from the generating idea, is so highly concentrated that the sensuous extension of the piece exceeds the apparent information in an ironical subversion of pictorial convention.

Will Insley’s drawing, Slip Space Flip Extend, 1969, rejects the finite limits of Euclidean geometry for a projective geometry. Line indicates direction and relationship involving temporal extensions rather than spatial boundaries. Agnes Denes’ work also explores orders of cognition that combine Conceptual art and cosmological speculations. These drawings are topological in nature—they are concerned with relationships instead of measure, yet create a three-dimensional grid.

The exploration of form in an original way is not always so conceptual in intention and procedure. Several drawings in the exhibition concern the nature of perception as the shaping of what one sees. Richard Serra’s Balance Plate, for example, struggles toward an exactness of placement—the overlay of charcoal strokes reveals previous markings that had functioned purely as shape within the shape of the paper, but which had not activated the plane in an active tension between surface and perspective. Richard Tuttle’s drawings, Yellow Under Diagonal, 1973, Brown Over Diagonal, 1972, and Hyksos, 1973, involve the relationships between form and page. The placement of odd and carefully discovered shapes requires a deftness that eludes virtuosity. The drawings are one-shot works, eccentric as subjects for drawing, and precarious in their simplicity. Myron Stout’s drawings move toward contained and enclosing shapes. An organic formal order that had appeared overused is renewed through his examination of the forms as relational and proportional variables.

Works such as these are instrumental in extending the perceptual and conceptual consequences of art, and it is imperative that their fundamental qualities be extracted from circumscribing frameworks. While the economic structure operative through museums, galleries, and magazines has had a conservative effect on art since the 19th century, the position of the avant-garde outside the economic structure, until the late 1950s, exerted a radicalizing pressure on the premises governing the identity and value of the art object. Antagonistic to the economic norm, the attack on accepted institutions permitted first-order art and ideas to be experienced at their inception as originative. Although the function of the avant-garde soon became a tradition in itself in both art and politics, it constantly brought the normative structures into focus. It was only when the radical works became conventionalized themselves that they were absorbed into the culture as marketable products. During the ’60s, however, work that had emerged in opposition to ’50s art—appropriating common advertising images, mass-produced materials, and kitsch as iconography—was increasingly absorbed by the American upper-middle class, art-buying public. The integration of ’60s art into the support structure was not adverse to the syntax of the work, for its iconography was mass-oriented and the flat images reproduced well in magazines. Even art that had appeared to be antagonistic to Pop art, such as Minimal sculpture and modernist painting, now seems much closer to the Pop use of common materials, industrial manufacture, bright color, clean edges, and serial imagery.

The circumscription of contemporary art within the economic structure, even though the market has turned largely to Europe, has created a crisis in the art of the ’70s. The incorporation of art into the system prevents any conflict with the stability of the cultural institutions or the premises on which they are founded. The dominance of the art magazines has become more important; they are vehicles of photographs which in turn become surrogates for environmental and dematerialized work. This contradiction has created a widespread provincialism in art, one not adverse to the work of the ’60s, but seemingly antithetical to much current art. (A noteworthy exception is the attitude of Robert Irwin who has consistently rejected the “reproductive” photograph.) Today, radical works are appropriated into the system before the qualities that differentiate the substance of the work from previous art can be experienced as originative. Earth art and dematerialized work, for example, failed to follow through with an announced intention to operate outside the existing institutions. While the actual pieces could not be displayed, surrogates for the work (such as photographs, blueprints, notes, and empty space) were exhibited and sold, relying in part on a European market similar to the rejected American one. Surely, the radicality of the work would have been to reject the context of the art gallery in favor of the use of terrain or nonspace as an independent system. Since photographs in galleries and magazines convey but a small range of variability, any challenge to the art context is assimilated into the familiar look of what is already marketable.

The importance of the atomic phenomenon as a firsthand experience, transcending both context and the artist’s intentions, may be a reason that vital art has generally been produced in large urban centers where it can be seen firsthand by other working artists. It is imperative that critics and curators focus on such particulars, either ostensively or descriptively, to reveal the specifically originative qualities of the work. This position seems to require dealing with the structures on which critical argument is based simultaneous to any discussion of the art itself. The analysis of frameworks cannot be an end in itself, for it can neither replace nor define concrete physical works, nor adequately deal with any discrepancy between the artist’s intent and the actual artwork. On the contrary, the investigation of structures could radicalize the work of art and at the same time challenge and radicalize the necessary economic support system. An understanding of art economics as the basis for cultural suppositions on the role of art could free criticism of a moralistic bias, especially that aspect which reflects long-term evaluations of “quality” through the academic refinement of mainstream ideas.

Lizzie Borden

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