PRINT Summer 1974

Peter and the Pressure Cooker

READ THE LABEL: METAPHYSICAL GONZO journalism. It started out about art, then the New York ambiance, then differences between it and L.A., then my reactions to those differences, then the constitution of those reactions (L.A. middle-classness), then whether or not it’s worth reaction.

My parents are up to get our son; the house is full of suitcases, people, confusion, good-byes, unsolicited hints on packing a bag—all in all, superfluous logistics on what, for some art heavy, would be a routine matter. A masterpiece of driving in the rain during traffic from the Valley to the airport—changing lanes and slipping on/off the freeway in just the right spots, around the jams. We pulled up with three minutes to departure, flipped the keys to my father, and ran. The check-in attendant rolled her eyes toward heaven as I flopped the portfolio onto the last feasible conveyor space. Archie Bunker, driving the JFK-Midtown Carey, dines immediately on my feelings of inferiority before all New Yorkers. They know more than I do; deference seems called for at all times. The cold authority of the East is established at once, by the way he takes my six bucks. The fever of weakness continues/accelerates at the slushy hotel facade; my upper arms feel narrow, tubular, and limp. There’s a small row about the room: some woman’s in ours because the one she’s changing to hasn’t been readied yet. We get another—red bedspreads, red wallpaper, red curtains. We lie on the bed and leaf through Artforum and the Village Voice. There’s an oppressive density of activity. I’m used to space around ideas, events, objects—places for echo and contemplation. The Voice theater and dance sections are beehives of troupes, leased spaces, organizing, performing, inveigling the press into coverage, news on the grapevine. Exhausted. Two days in New York and I’m played out, operating in continual hypertension. Joyce is with me; I feel an obligation to make this trip a “good time.” But what if I lived here? Could I simultaneously care for another’s well-being and sustain an offensive against the city? It’d be going steady in a concentration camp. Early intimations of disaster, a feeling of can’t cope. I stayed in the bathtub a long time. I can’t penetrate, flow with the city; I’m up against a facade of glass, lights, bellmen, and propaganda. I’m letting it get to me, floating around the outside.

Downtown, we couldn’t find the bar we wanted to eat at, and walked through some heavy dudes on Broome Street, below Christie—a Latin section with crowds of young men spilling out of the doorways, combing their hair. It looked like that all-purpose brownstone on the MGM lot. Life imitates art, at least for me, since the movie set came first. Two beefy guys in Little Italy help up a fallen wino; one of the Samaritans, as he lifts, shouts across the street to a shadow in a doorway, “Yeah, that was my Uncle Joey that died; I hafta go when they lower him!” Two Bill Bendix lookalikes in the pizzeria bet basketball; and lovely, semitropical words like “Arizona State” and “Loyola” flutter around their thick fingers in the sausage slices. Coming home, we see the remnants of a fistfight between sixteen-year-olds. The black kid is taller, but he’s beaten—a bloody mouth and a cut eye. I feel for the black kid, although the white escorts a date and appears the accosted party. The white kid says, “Try it again and I’ll kill ya, ya motherfucka, and I’m not bullshittin’ ya.” If I weren’t in the art biz, I wouldn’t come here, the worst sumphole in the world. But I’m the tender result of too much easy, sunny, stucco-coated California living. I forget at what price culture (sanity in a hostile environment) is bought. But why would anyone live here? For the culture? But the galleries, theaters, museums, and restaurants are by now alienated from whatever abundance sprung them; now they’re hysterical necessities, psychic pilings, against a wash of brutality. But if I can find beauty in a peeling, indolent backwater L.A. suburb, then somebody (else) can find it here. Mechanically, New York is a perversion of the city, having, like certain stars of considerable mass, collapsed upon itself. The bigger it gets, the smaller it gets. There’s a Bonsai-tree store on Broadway in the 20s (“You can get anything you want in New York, even a Bonsai tree”). But you can hardly get to it, take anything out of it, and only then at quadruple the price. It’d be cheaper to go to Japan for the seedlings. From the airport bus, I saw a wet metal stairway, a dirty postage-stamp backyard, and a rotted Plymouth. I have fascination/repulsion fantasies: I’ll find myself transported there one night, dressed too lightly, with no money or I.D. With meditation, it becomes a religious vision: WORSHIP THE NAMELESS CRANNY, THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. I’ve had, however, the same creepy tingle with rural locales—a creosoted telephone pole, 89°, county road 23A, 68 miles southeast of Iowa City, a crushed oil filter box—but the intensity is incomparable with New York, with all those unseen, unsafe old boilers in its bowels, The World’s Biggest Nameless Cranny.

There was a special press line at the stage entrance to the Beuys lecture, and a harried woman at the door attempted to block and console those who’d queued in ignorance. Four Frenchmen near us began to shout, “C’est le fascism!” and “Nix-on!” We got seats down front, near the emergency exit. I’m not used to that compacting of people—the auditorium stuffed to capacity with New York downtown types. (Not much different from L.A., really, but more hair, hats, coats, paraphernalia.) Beuys comes out in that million-dollar fox fur overcoat, green hunting (?) vest, Frankenstein hat, and haunted face. People outside, unable to get in, were making a commotion, perhaps the muffled preamble to a riot. I pull back the curtain and scan the folding chairs stored between the exit and us. Feldman appeals for a few minutes’ grace; a few persons are admitted to the balcony. But the considerable crowd outside starts to thump the door, to the accompaniment of a few actual social democrats demanding that everyone be seated before Beuys is heard. Beuys’ ”lecture“ is about 15 minutes in spasmodic English (better than my German, but I’m not performing) on art and socialism, running something like: The one activity capable of liberating humanity into socialism is art, but first art must be expanded to include almost every kind of ”creativity“; then (so I infer) we can tap the wellsprings of each person, and each person, newly aware of his/her creativity, will participate in democratic reform/revolution. At that, Beuys throws it to the audience. The first seeker, a callow youth, asks Beuys if he uses holography. Beuys fastens on what he hears as ”whole“ and the exchange is kind and jolly. Then a subway crazy launches a harangue on the ”true“ origin of art-for-art’s-sake. He walks out, later, muttering incisively about ”the art of cooking, the art of conversation, the art of politics. . . .“ The rest’s a downtown ”Tonight“ show: rotating ”hosts“ up from the audience to interview the permanent ”guest.“ I think I understand Beuys’ aversion to pat, authoritarian leftism, but the ”dialogue“ is tedious; when it’s adversary it’s embarrassing, when it’s mutual admiration, a SoHo tent show spreads its wings. Hannah Wilke does a women’s-movement-cum-cupcake number, holding Beuys’ hand, cooing about ”loving“ and ”being sensitive to other people,“ and bebopping at the audience. Far be it from me to trundle up the aisle, an L.A. lightweight who can’t (or doesn’t know how to) endure for the good stuff. Finally a young woman tells Beuys of her difficulties getting her children’s art class to ”experience creativity“; when he settles into a Düsseldorf Dear Abby, the camel’s spine snaps, and we ease out. A young art writer I met says he thinks Beuys has one of the better rip-offs going—a political hustle for the art, like Indian fighter stories before the snake oil sale. At Gibson, it seems a little truer: little editions of felt/boxed/stamped objets d’art, carefully laid out in jewelry-store light. Behind a partition, Beuys, in his great overcoat, regales a circle of young people with his program. The wonderful thing about Beuys is that he can’t handle English, so he can’t really get into a serious argument; he slips into a vague, generalized political sop so soft nobody can bite it. You feel slightly sorry for him, i.e., ”Beuys would like to do better, but can’t because of the language barrier"—forgetting for the moment that he could work with a translator, written texts, slides, tapes, film, playlets, whatever.

Doing the galleries: Red Grooms (Myers) belongs in Chicago or San Francisco, but when you see it in New York there’s an irresistible suspicion that New York knows it’s not right, but that its power of authentication can overcome even Grooms. It’s like seeing some willowy million-dollar baby in Vogue wearing plastic hair curlers under a chiffon scarf and realizing (not without terror) that Vogue can make it stick for a couple of seasons. (In SoHo, Joyce says, “There’s sure a lot of funky art around,” everybody indulging childhood fantasies, bad color, papier-mâché, beasties, etc. A Grooms flu. But, by the end of the day, Grooms looks better than most.) I never saw much in Michael Steiner before, from the photographs/ads—no sense of weight, physicality, patina. In the flesh it’s a small revelation—a little stodgy, but good. Marlborough, however, is the epitome of the hostile white place; everything looks like money, lying in state. Ian Hornak (Tibor de Nagy), landscapes, photo-Realism with a twinge of surreal. I remember something about New York kids going to the zoo to see a cow; the adults go to the galleries to see a landscape. A lot of New York art appears without affection, but the lack really kills landscape. Hobson’s Choice: people outside a scene don’t know enough, and insiders are corrupted by it. John Loring (Pace), photo-Realist snatches with Benday, straddling the territories of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg, even Lowell Nesbitt. Another “radical Realist” staking out real estate; again, I can’t find any affection for what’s being painted (printed), or painting (printing) itself, or even art, but only for the art-world free-for-all. Downtown. Somebody has “Air & Water Systems” (Hundred Acres), the most craftish, regional little sculptures of a fish, bird, and alligator, but spaced out (physically, on the walls), attenuated into mock profundity. Red Grooms applied to systems analysis through structural anthropology glossed over with Minimal staging techniques. Terry Fugate-Wilcox, “Sculpture Concrete” (James Yu) appears (I assume) on his announcement going onward/upward on a moto-cross machine. Gee, a little West Coast, right here in River City. Straight representational painting is under an unbearable strain in New York; it won’t work without a gimmick—in this case (Li-Lan’s paintings), the pun of paintings of blank paper with the safety-valve of slightly irregular outlines, so the sheet edges make little Frankenthalerlike formalist niceties while the details imply the pragmatic integrity of Harnett. A foot in all camps. How could anybody go on like this for more than six months, operating out of hothouse traditions on the art-world company farm? In the boondocks, a rooftop Realist could cultivate his liking of staid, simple things (views of houses, hills, pots, people), but in New York it’s got to have a hype. Jerry Kearns (O.K. Harris), Hampshire Gazette, 1972. Photos, actual size, trophies, old people. Fake empathy. Terrible. Another guy with his piddling territory fenced off. Three shows at once, 27 phones ringing: rent is the only reality, and art history a collection of rent receipts. Fact: art in modern art-history books comes from gallery art, which comes from commercially pushed art, which comes from artists making connections with dealers like Karp. Fact: even drop-out, nonissue, regional artists based their decisions (if only through opposition) on what goes on in the New York pressure cooker. Marxist fact: everybody is run by the system; Guru Maharaj Ji’s disciples dance on the end of the Pentagon’s string. If you really want to drop out, reform/overthrow the system, take your regional art and stick it up New York’s nose. But while you’re trying, your esthetic gets subliminally hipped, you start to know too much to stay dumb, but too little to get smart, and you’re screwed. 420 West Broadway: so that’s what it’s like. It’s quite suburban, like a haul-it-yourself furniture showroom in Jersey. The top floor, Phillip Wofford. Awful. The only thing interesting is how: on a ladder, with buckets? It’s so available, effect ridden, and undiscriminating, two steps up from black-light posters; it makes Paul Jenkins seem like Albers. On one floor: films/video; grainy, black-and-white, tough, New York combat-cameraman esthetics; the gallery is fairly empty, with only the whirring equipment and a few loiterers. The images are austere, obtuse. I watch one with sentence fragments (negative Pen-Tel?): “IF I WERE SAYING THIS TO YOU ALOUD,/I WOULD HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY/TO GRIN SELF-MOCKINGLY.” And so on. What I can’t get over is an insistent smell of funky fascism. A case could be made. Pro: You hardly ever see totalitarian instruments decorated with big splashes of color. Con: Then why are the lobbies of CIA-infested, government-overthrowing, copper-stealing, military-industrial cat’s-paws like Chase Manhattan festooned with establishment abstraction? Pro: Exactly, to disguise their politics and make people feel warm, lush, human, and liberal. Con: But what about pageantry and pomp among, say, the Nazis? Pro: lust an unfortunate holdover of Franz-Josef puffery; it’s all khaki and cement now, grainy, hard, and cold, like this place. Con: But look around; we’re all leftists. (He’s right; everybody looks like a refugee Trotskyite—bushy beards, gold-rimmed glasses, prol caps, Fagin-length scarves, consumptive complexions, surplus rubber boots, tattered Levis, and well-thumbed Beacon Press paperbacks.) On another floor, Robert Mangold’s opening (Weber). Squares inscribed in circles and such, but minor “flaws” make the lines misconnect; since we can’t quite see where things go “wrong,” the paintings are arresting beyond their cleverness, restraint, and neatness. I like ’em and I ought to tell the guy so. But he doesn’t know me, and is wearily shaking hands by the dozen. What’s the use? So we go down to another floor . . . John Chamberlain’s sculptures (Castelli). They’re laughable in a semigood way; I think he meant them to be funny. Crinkled paper made rigid (resin?) then sprayed with lacquer rainbows; the silliness is engaging—the ultimate hot-rod paint job on wadded paper. I was told there are thousands in Chamberlain’s studio, breeding like rabbits, while out here, on this sacred floor, they’re fussed over like Chinese pandas. A tailor-made, regional museum show—easily created New York “far-out” to Tucson or Cincinnati where the local burghers can enjoy at least the paint job. I assume Castelli can pull these things off, flattering the shit out of a provincial curator. Artists Space, nonprofit benevolence in which three known artists each month pick three unknowns, but this time it’s pretty standard Process/Concept stuff, all the limits of New York art. It looks done by bright students: photos, stats, documentation, and droning analysis (tongue-in-cheek, maybe not) of significantly insignificant phenomena. An orange. Taking so many sequential copies of The New York Times, pulping them, making single-squeeze sculptures called Getting a Grip on the News. Snore. And notebooks with “information”; Manhattan must run short on plastic loose-leafs. It dates easily, and looks old to begin with. Also, some Bruce Nauman-type “tough” carpentry with walls, tables, chairs. (Later, jurying slides, a New York curator says, “Oh, another chair guy.” That many?) The room looks like a place the Greek police would take you to beat on your feet. Corporation envy is at least partially operable here: the desire on the part of deprived, powerless, functionless, politically/economically disenfranchised artists (the sons/daughters of GS-15’s?) to staple reports, write memos, compile statistical tables, correlate data, and file binders. I suspect that, given power, they would beat on feet. If the progeny of “Father Knows Best” became dopers, freakers, and draft-avoiders, why won’t second-generation hipsters become petty tyrants, Kafka clerks, once they graduate from loft epistemology? What I suppose is “Feminist” art (Nancy Hoffman), including “floor pieces” (hooked rugs, Joyce says). Drawing with that kind of printing (Morris, Nauman, Serra, Smithson, Bochner); every Conceptualist uses it—block capitals done fast in pencil. There’s probably a lettering course at Visual Arts: “Fundamentals of Artists’ Printing 1A.” Hungry, tired, getting colder, we plod toward Paolucci’s when we pass a storefront clogged with people holding plastic glasses of wine. Leatrice Rose (Landmark): straight figurative painting, deft, understated, and—surprise—affectionate. A little Alex Katzish, but nice. I don’t know anybody in this room (then again, I don’t know anybody, period); must be the figure-painting crowd. My eyeballs are tired, working at culture.

Doing the museums: We’ve borrowed press cards—“flash them to the guard, and you’ll save ten, twelve dollars on the day.” I know I’m entitled to them (I’m press), but I never do these things self-assuredly. If it weren’t untenable, I’d have Joyce represent us to the guard; she can do these things, but I have to learn. It works like a charm. Miró’s Birth of the World again at MoMA, one of the five paintings I’d steal for that klunky shape with lots of angles on it down around the bottom. I forgot about the “balloon” in it, having overestimated it as a miraculously post-AE antipainting abstraction. Classical modern after all, old-line European painting. Duchamp as visual fare is boring, illustratorlike. Somebody (in L.A.) told me he was a failed Cubist, that they kicked him out, so he went home hurt and sabotaged their game. Duchamp, as a previously arty artist, had a lot to feel guilty about; his paintings are pretty and slick. It reminds me of Robert Irwin’s philosophical struggle with the art object, disowning it by halves. But he, too, had a lot to feel guilty about; his art was tailored, crafted, consumer looking. Those of us who make rattier things aren’t quite as maniacal about renunciation. Guggenheim: an argument with a black guard, who tells me I have to check my purse (Joyce says, “Say satchel”). I tell him the old guard at ground level says I can carry it. He says he’s in charge on the ramps. I ask him why Joyce doesn’t have to check hers, which is bigger. He says, “Because she’s a lady.” I say, “But I’m a gentleman.” He says, “That don’t matter,” and I go downstairs and check the purse. Except for minor misinformation from my semicircular canals, I like the Guggenheim: nondecision, the sequence all laid out, no alternative by jumping. The place matches up well with Malevich . . . or Kandinsky . . . easel pictures. The best Malevichs are the didactic diagrams of Cézanne/Cubism/Futurism/Suprematism; the catalogue should have comprised solely those; instead it’s another coffee-table book with color repros of the paintings. Met: we go directly downstairs, to the Art Moderne costumes—a sea of fashion designers are in attendance at this glass ballroom ball throwing sparkles and nylon stockings over the mannequins’ heads (clever—the right historical “distance” is achieved by making ghosts of the figures). This is what museums are good at, rather than “art”: natural or social history—dioramas of buffaloes, Indian villages, Civil War weaponry, and Eskimo knives. You feel at home.

Jake Berthot and I visited Berkeley together in ’72. He lives way the hell down on Grand Street, in a grimy building all fixed up on the inside. Unlike L.A. studios it looks legit, lived in, untheatrical. He’s easy-going, grace-under-pressure in SoHo. It all comes out in his pictures; he paints slow art. The ones in progress seem . . . well, small masterpieces. His color, though muted, is more visceral now, and he’s got the multiple panel down to a T. With Mangold’s paintings, they’re the best art I’ve seen in New York. It restores one’s faith: a nice man, with sensibilities and perseverance, can, like virtue, will out. The tape recorder can’t record context. I put something in, earlier, in a moment of fear, sitting on the hotel john in that tile white room. I think, in Lie Down in Darkness, Peyton Loftis jumped from a bathroom window in similar circumstances. Coplans borrowed the tape recorder; I’m caught in a media vortex: writing notes from which to make tapes from which to make notes from which to write. New York deprives its art of affection; because the flame is on so high, the boil is so rapid. Petlin says it’s simple economics. The space is valuable, the rent is therefore high, so turnover is necessary, therefore Karp with three shows at once, milling foot traffic, and, of course, “fast” art to go with it—like “fast food.” New York art is to regional art as McDonald’s is to country cooking. The competition here begets the “best” art, like the road to the Super Bowl begets the best football players, but it also produces a certain kind of art, just like the NFL produces a certain kind of human being. “Tough.” Quickly-made, semigrimy art with obvious ideological punch. Or ruthlessly hand-crafted delights, like photo-Realism. No-middle ground, nothing that isn’t prey to the neighborhood. An axiom: THE SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES OF DOWNTOWN NEW YORK DICTATE THE LOOK OF ITS ART MUCH MORE THAN THE SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE REGIONS DICTATE THE LOOK OF REGIONAL ART. Hustling my own work: no, fuck it, I won’t talk about it.

Tried to read three issues of Artforum on the plane coming in, got through only part of one article before my head hurt. (It’s amazing how you can occupy five hours sitting, standing up, going to piss, buckling the safety belt, or brushing croutons from your crotch.) Artforum office—barely more commodious than an elevator shaft. 13,000 subscribers out there envision it emerging monthly through the cool glass doors of the World Trade Center because Optima and a square format belie its manger. Heady talk of “locuses of energy,” clique politics, competing field theories—people acting like textbooks. Listening to somebody’s opinion of this writer’s interpretation of that critic’s opinion of this artist’s influence on that artist’s early work. New York is overpopulated to the extent that there’s a critics’ scene frosted over the art scene(s). Art is all history, issues, power struggles, field theories, and very little art. All the disadvantages of corporate life (the conversation has all the lyricism of an actuaries’ convention), and none of the advantages of art. In a simpler community, the absence of racket would compensate for the lack of elucidation; you could go into a room, look at something (or dance in it), spit tobacco, come out, go home, and think about it. MORE DISCOURSE IS BETTER—the great unexamined assumption of the art world. Kozloff sounds me out on Artforum ’s being a “cliquey” magazine, the clique currently disguised as pluralism revolving around post-Minimalism. Everybody, we agree, is trying to ape the house style of dispassionate system analysis of art phenomena and nobody wants to get into questions of politics, morals, ethics, economics. Somebody, he says is boning up on math and set theory to write about Dorothea Rockburne. Why not, he asks, write on why mathematics became tasteful to several artists (LeWitt, Bochner, Darboven, Rockburne, etc.) in the late ’60s? Current polarity between writing academics, in which art is treated like a neolithic arrowhead and the artist as some distant anthropological assumption, and buddy-of-the-artist groupism. I disagree on one thing: he contends both a Morris performance (bad example?) and a Bechtle car painting purport to deal with only the structure of art, and that they’re much the same. Bullshit. Bechtle is giving you a ’64 Chrysler and Morris body movements; why deny the obvious? Artforum tells L.A. art, in effect, that it will be permitted some small deviations (if it wishes coverage), but it had damn well tow the ecclesiastical line. Of course, if L.A. didn’t believe it (that is, lust after New York authentication) to begin with, it couldn’t be bullied, but we haven’t learned that yet. Talked to Bannard on the phone: the formalist riff. I’ve never met the guy, though I tried cursorily; he sounds like Bengston, but without the sense of humor. I saw his photograph in a magazine—he looks like an assistant D.A. I told him about the Beuys lecture; he was amazed for 20 minutes until I figured out I was pronouncing it “Boice.” Don’t get bogged down in abstract philosophy, he says, stick to the quality of the objects themselves. It sounds monolithic and unbending, but I don’t sell paintings like that, either. (If you’re so smart . . . etc.) Coplans has a Sunday buffet, with the magazine people. Most of the evening I spend locked in losing combat with Lizzie Borden, defending the cute ’n clever rhetoric (interior dialogue) of a piece about Bengston and Hassel Smith. (I thought the device a serviceable form for doubts about painting, but what the hell.) She’s likeable, bright, and tenacious. Sensing the worst, I tell her that I might not win the argument, but I’ll outlast her. Drunk, too, I pass out, waking up at dawn. As I recall, there was also a long discourse on the philosophy of marriage, my being a chauvinist pig, in which I did little but sip and listen. (Embattled about that: I got this far raging my ass off for a living; I deserve to be a full-time pseudo-intellectual.) An outsider, I get everybody’s rap. Coplans: holding the fort against Lilliputians wanting to break into print or revive formalist criticism; Kozloff: the magazine is awash in pseudoscientistic NASAisms, which is nothing more than ’60s formalism rehashed and applied to newer, even more inappropriate art; and (indirectly) Michelson: why don’t they just bury that tired old “art” shit and give full attention to the heaviest stuff in the Big Apple, and to hell with the provinces. I find myself at least partially sympathetic to everybody’s case. Yes, Coplans is harassed by small minds; yes, the magazine has sold out to SoHo; yet (in L.A.), Artforum is an elitist New York house organ; yes (in New York), regional art is mostly second-rate; yes, Artforum seems to be swallowing its own nose, etc., etc. What I should do is to stand up on my hind legs and tell each one: John, you’re an intellectual might-makes-right’er and you think art is a fight; Max, this ain’t the Hudson Review. The next day, our last in the office, I’m giving John back his press cards. John asks if I got along. He says, “where’s the piece on Turrell?” Why don’t you, I suggest, have Ed Wortz interview Bob Irwin on Turrell? “This,” John says, to James Collins, “is an example of West Coast playfulness.” A conspiracy of silence, even among the staff, about Artforum. It scares the shit out of me—a granite wall of heavy typesetting and enigma. Each month, when I open the white envelope, I say, “Please God, no new pimples on the ass of phenomenology this month.”

Back in L.A., the February issue in hand—a guy burying himself, a thick affair on Art & Language—dense and attenuated. To me, it looks like the Auschwitz Gazette. Does my innocent article on Maria Nordman appear the same way to other people? Small nudges to move to New York. Somebody has to be someplace else. I can see going if you’re completely egocentric or playing the history game. But, on principle, it ain’t fair; in fact, it’s absurd, fuck it. You need only a week or ten days in New York a year. Anything else is masochism or window dressing; you just get mired in the system, and conclude only a different number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Besides, Manhattan isn’t fit for human habitation; it should be cordoned off, like an old mine field. Nobody in L.A. would set up housekeeping inside a packing plant, but that’s what New York is a thousandfold. No wonder art is reviled by artists. It’s the life that’s reasonless, but you can’t admit that, so you pick on the thin skin, and flail that. A fault (among many) as a combative artist: I’m impressed by impenetrability, heaviness, nonporousness of big buildings with bronze doors, plate glass, and shiny knobs. I think: how can my little gouache make a dent in this? I haven’t much faith in the spirituality/mentality of art to move this shit around. For 20 years, I’ve been trying to educate myself to see the art context vertically (non-physically, in terms of other art, history, culture), but for 20 years I’ve kept seeing it horizontally (physically, in terms of buildings, industry, economics, and household accidents), amazed at the faith art places in the vertical. By colleagues, they’re seen in relation to other paintings, before and after, and in relation to a historical stream, a core drilled out of time. I see the damned things in terms of the gallery, the gallery in terms of the building, the building in terms of the people walking by, the people in terms of the people down the street, those in terms of the people uptown, the uptowners in terms of garbage collection and storm drains, and so on. The painting floats out to Madison Avenue, and I wonder whether it could stand up to being slushed on, rained on, hit by a cab. How can art assume, since there are only 20 yards between the painting and any number of cabs, that it won’t be hit? I look at the painting and I see Lefrak City. Does that make me a lousy esthetician, or a good dialectical materialist, or neither? “Don’t forget to tip the driver, sir!” My only overt faux-pas of the trip was to give him a balled-up dollar. (Once, my father gave the porter on the Catalina Island steamer a dime for toting all our bags, and I still shiver at my mother’s unforgiving glare.) I ask Joyce how she liked all that nifty, Fifth Avenue packaging I’d been touting. “Yes,” she says, “but they’re all distracted and worried; and it’s hard to be beautiful at any price when you’re so distracted and worried.” On the plane, we’re next to a nice-looking coed, but Joyce plunks herself expertly in the middle seat, and I’m alone with my bourbon and peanuts. Walter picks us up at the airport, and relates that a young painter in Pasadena killed himself—drove up in the hills and blew his brains out. Speculation whether he did it for art reasons, because his painting wasn’t “making it” or not, etc. He’s the second one in Pasadena in three years. A psychic overlay of Manhattan; I can almost hear subways rumbling beneath the stucco houses. Returned, I appreciate New York—the richness of the crowds and the hurry. The city’s a sorting mechanism which, for instance, polarizes human relationships into either austere, efficient, wasteless, common sense (in the deli the guy puts the cream in the cup first to avoid stirring the coffee; a hundred stirs a day waste too much time in New York), or militant, clinging caprices (even the tackiest restaurants have full service and use butter), like the defiant remnants of empire delicacies in occupied Paris. Driving down Lindley to Moorpark to the freeway past sad, weak little stucco houses in weathered pastels; suddenly, I can’t abide it anymore. There’s nothing here. Face it. There isn’t material anyplace. Alternatives: 1) reject the regions because New York is the standard and you went there and succeeded, so you don’t need the regions anymore; 2) reject New York because, after all, you succeeded on the basis of your regional sources; 3) accept New York because it’s the standard and your regional sources failed you, so try again; 4) because you failed, stick to your sources and fuck New York. I’m white, WASP, middle-class, married, with two kids and a house; I exercise reasonably, don’t drink a lot, smoke mostly other people’s dope, and am reasonably industrious (it’s taken three days to type this). But, back here, I feel beaten down, slow, uncaring. New York brings out the spiteful recluse in me. I want coffee in the morning, basketball games on TV, the yard clean and raked, my daughter bounced on my knee, a can of beer before dinner. Chickenshit? I wonder if I’ve ever had a real art idea. I saw Samaras’ altered Polaroids, and, writing, have thought about Irwin’s scrim, Bell’s glass boxes, and even young guys like Arnoldi (twigs) and Barth (pounding cable into layered paper); I apprise most of them as manufacturing gimmicks propped up by jargon, more or less irrelevant to the essence of art. Am I profound, or just dumb, selective or just unclever? Is it just that I don’t have any new ideas, or is there something in the neighborhood of Rothko or Reinhardt, Lobdell or Hofmann, Camus or Beckett, that’s where it’s at—a simple there-ness? At thirty-three, it’s too late to have been a hotshot, but (too late) I can see the advantages of being an ex-hotshot: what seem at first like snotnose art-, world strategies are inevitably the building blocks of art history. How will I have ever contributed anything by taking these incessant, confined, austere, reasoned steps? (I saw a camper on the freeway; on its spare tire was emblazoned, “Cruisaire, Inc./Gardena, California.” Raised in Gardena, I thought, I don’t have any roots, no sources of character, no Pacific Northwest trout-fishing stories, no Joey and Louie and the kids in the tenement playing in the open hydrant. My past is as bland as Gardena. Maybe I should take a drive down to Gardena, see what the asshole of the universe looks like these days, and rediscover my roots.)

At best, I’m seeing through the game-playing, and it’s tedious; at worst, I’m just tired of being a handmaiden to other people’s work (let those fuckers write something about my stuff for a change). What I’m suffering is a doctrinal crisis; I’ve lost my taste for watered wine and transparent wafers. Maybe if they’d just give the masses in English. . . . I painted almost a whole picture in an hour. Confronted with that—the painting on the wall—how can you possibly care about anything else?

Peter Plagens