PRINT October 1978

Fashion/Style/Custom: Alan Cote and David Diao

CRITICISM IS A FUNCTION OF its own investigatory technique. The paintings discussed here are seen through the frame of fashion versus custom, fashion being concerned with the novel, quality commodity of tomorrow, custom maintaining and varying yesterday’s (more likely yesteryear’s) received ideas of integrity, utility, durability. What are the uses of fashion and custom?

For Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “One of the peculiar elements of fashion lies in its quality of presenting change or novelty as necessary, hence endowing the temporary with a psychological illusion of permanence.”1 Kennedy Fraser describes the two-stage apprehension of the evidence as “ . . . the bobbing markers of the otherwise hidden course of some of the great currents of the times, and later as instruments to aid in the interpretations of those currents.”2 Does “fashion” differ from the art historian’s use of the term “style?” Meyer Schapiro’s definition: “. . . Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of artists and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group . . .”3 Wylie Sypher’s: “A style is a vocabulary. It may well be the most sensitive and explicit vocabulary of any society. If a style is a vocabulary, it is also a syntax; and syntax expresses the way in which a society feels, responds, thinks, communicates, dreams, escapes.”4 “Style,” unlike fashion, is rarely discussed in terms of the art historical present; it is investigated as a manifestation of the cultural past. Fashion is an expression of style; fashion is the latest expression of style.

Fashion suggests dress, but the clothing/culture analogy, which is hardly new, need not be superficial. Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, that jumble of textiles, taste and tilted idealist philosophy, is dedicated to the proposition that “for matter, were it never so despicable, is spirit, the manifestation of spirit . . . The thing visible, nay the thing imagined, the thing in any way conceived as visible, what is it but a garment, a clothing of the higher celestial invisible.”5

Even Barnett Newman thought about clothes as fashion in relation to his own art: “They weren’t wasted, the years I spent with my father in business. I learned about the nature of plasticity in the cutting room, the meaning of form, the visual and tactile nature of things; how to take a rag and make it come to life. I learned the difference between a form and a shape; for instance, I learned that women’s clothes are painting, and that men’s clothes are sculpture . . . soft sculpture . . .”6

There’s an obvious confluence of the vocabularies that we use for art and fashion. The reason is that, by their very nature, fashion and art are concerned with surface, with the way things look.

An artist’s reputation is made by convincing buyers of the authority of the work—of its intelligence, its beauty, its resonance, its wit. Convincing requires a discourse, and such discourse usually aims for the potential buyer rather than toward the heart of the work itself. Charles Boyer remarks to Danielle Darrieux in Madame de . . . that their model marriage is only “superficially superficial,” which is a coy way of implying there’s something substantial without indicating what that substance might be. Advertising and criticism operate under the “superficially superficial” principle. Their persuasion (all too infrequently, analysis) promises to deliver something extraordinary. Which can be the sheer novelty of the object; yet as Mademoiselle Rose Bertin (Marie Antoinette’s milliner and organizer of the Paris milliner’s guild) remarked, “There’s nothing new except what’s forgotten.” Or it could be the endowment of historical landmark status: an article is important because it’s an expression of its own time. Baudelaire suggested that the ability to belong to one’s epoch was a spiritual quality, while Carlyle debunked this marketing point with the comment “Who so belongs only to his own age . . . must needs die with it.”

One of the reasons for the presence of sales-minded rhetoric in the art world is, as Henry Geldzahler points out, the “false start toward the democratization of art”7 that necessitated the critic’s mediation between the artist and a public who, unlike previous privileged generations of art connoisseurs, did not share common language, literature, knowledge—culture. The Romantic image of the artist was as the transcendent, classless being. Today’s artist comes from the middle class, generally earns the income and affects the dress of the working class, but necessarily identifies with the upper (buyer) class. This confusion of identity, purpose and public is a product of democratization without program. Goods are produced and criticism becomes, notwithstanding its intellectual pretensions, a discourse validated, like advertising, by its acceptance, measured simply in sales. Can fashion exist without sales or without sponsors willing to act as salespeople?

How does the tradition of the new become the tradition of the now? The rhetoric of the critic, that professional mediator between two worlds, is used as caption to the artwork precisely as fashion copy authorizes and reifies a sensibility. The “new” is immediately accepted as vanguard activity, and everyone knows the vanguard presages the future. But how can there be an immediately assimilable vanguard? Isn’t some friction required? The title of Harold Rosenberg’s collection of essays, The Tradition of the New, was inspired by a remark of Carlyle’s: “There is a deep-lying struggle in the whole fabric of society; a boundless grinding collision of the New with the Old.” Modernism had an initial struggle, but by mid-century it was rapidly institutionalized by museums, academia and the media who became hungry for the next culture feed. The new needs to be up-to-the-minute, the “now,” or it becomes dated. Is this any way to develop a lasting art?

The acceleration of cultural insatiability for the new has led to the cultivation of what Kennedy Fraser calls “The Fashionable Mind,” a sensibility finely tuned to the next five minutes of “now.” She writes:

Fashionable perception is incapable of discerning any fixed truth about an object or an event. . . . A fashionable mind is often distracted from thorough concentration on its object by the question of timing, and will wander into self-congratulation on the observer’s impeccably fashionable chronological instinct into overweening claims to have known or appreciated fashions long before they became widely fashionable. . . . To the absolutely fashionable mind, an opinion, a taste, or an enthusiasm is of significance only for a particular, restricted moment—a moment when it’s held in common by some right-seeming group of fellow souls, just before it is adopted by large groups of followers.8

Custom has roots—in tradition, in practice. It has an ancestry and the likelihood of progeny. It’s the dialectical coordinate of fashion. Fashion introduces trends by accompanying them with the two inducements of supply and propaganda. Custom maintains trends by ignoring them. Fashion has a reputation of being temporary and flighty, custom tenacious and hardy. Can fashion become custom? Customs accrue value by dint of their endurance, they give (the often false) sense of stability and solidity, where fashion is fluid and amorphous.

Nonrepresentational painting, appearing in the modes of various schisms and isms, is, too, despite the polemics of resistance, still capable of provoking a custom and not a fashion. Criticism of its practice now comes from two sides. From the past is the cloying invocation of “the emperor’s new clothes”: how can we understand something that doesn’t have objective content? From the present I reluctantly refer to as the post-modern Harold Rosenberg intimated, “People speak of ‘post-modern.’ They have in mind not a more advanced position than modernism, but on the contrary, a relaxation.”9 Under “post-modernism” nonrepresentational art in general—and painting in particular—is criticized for the missteps that led to the collapse of the discourse of modernism. Can modernist painting endure a two-front battle? It can, for two reasons: because it is now a custom (not a fashion) and because post-modernism by its very presence institutionalized modernism, accelerating the choosing of the winners and losers of the mode. (Here it is significant that both the artists to be considered here are without a dealer.)

If you’re not a practicing post-modern, you’re not in fashion. What does continuing to paint in that mode imply? A conservatism, to be sure, but as Amy Goldin pointed out, “Political language doesn’t always correspond with artistic facts. If we consider an artist conservative who has a fervent respect for art and a lively understanding of the resources of form, the possibility of a significant, unrevolutionary expansion of artistic experiences should not look so peculiar.”10 Continuing to paint (or make sculpture) in a modernist subgenre renegotiates familiar terrain in the search of what may have been left overlooked, unrefined. Modernism’s determinism celebrated the vocabulary of the pioneer (not to mention the imperialist): “progress,” “advance,” “going further,” are expressions peppering its polemics. Now, continuing to paint in the modernist mode may seem to signal a definite settler—as opposed to pioneer—mentality. But what’s wrong with spending time exploring the possessed terrain? Using a customary vocabulary instead of inventing a new language allows artists to manage their taste, instead of accommodating to the dictates of fashion (and fashion does dictate, it decides what you will consume. When the concern shifts from being “now” to prolonging “then” the artist has a chance, as T.S. Eliot remarked, to investigate the influence of Milton on Sophocles; that is to say, not seeing history as a series of progressive events or revolutionary disruptions, but nonlinearly, critically, allowing other analyses of the past. Practitioners of custom are interested in devolution, not revolution. Custom is ever in a holding pattern, wondering whether to land and knowing the new threatens to displace it. Practitioners of custom provide the truly vital element in any struggle: you know where they stand, they have articulated a position, they are not passive or protean like the practitioners of fashion.

Today both David Diao and Alan Cote paint in the custom of modernism in a post-modern environment, and color is the prime concern of each. For a chromaphobe like myself, color is usually a source of irritability, even allergy. It is associational and a part of the personality of the colorist. But as personal as color is (Amy Goldin: “the sort of color one likes is as irrevocable as one’s sexual preferences”11), the attempts either to standardize its taxonomy of meaning, or to imbue it with mystic, transcendent or metaphysical values, frankly mystify. Face it, we all see color with different sets of rods and cones and some of us aren’t capable of recognizing color at all, so the case made for the relativity of color is well taken. But color is also part (as are shapes) of the general, objective, unrelative, even technologically conditioned, social apparatus. (How else could advertisers promote pasta or tomato sauce with red-white-and-green ads?)

Thus overwhelming claims made on the viewer of the paintings by Cote and Diao can be described, although not ultimately explained, in terms of color, figure/ground relations, composition, iconography. Despite the fact that their large canvases ask to be read in terms of part-to-whole relations, like novels, movies or narrative in general, it is persistence of attention, not persistence of vision, that is required. These paintings, which pose hurdles before the viewer’s aptitude to oversimplify, with, for instance, geometric punning, do not fetishize, like so many marketing features, the qualities of surface, opticality or edge. Nor do they remystify the space of the canvas that modernism made claims to demythologize.

Now Diao and Cote are in a sense misfits, for which I am grateful. Like cowboys in the age of the cruise missile, plainsmen solemnly aware of their separation from an accelerated and confused marketplace, there is a dignity in their tenacious articulation of an unfashionable position. The cynical idea that the exhaustion of Western culture reflects the exhaustion of the West in the exploitation of the rest of the world is often enough manifest in the endgame strategies offered by much art that calls itself post-modern. But these two guys have vitality. Their work partakes of no such demoralized exhaustion; instead it shows plenty of sensuality, directionality and (gulp) taste. We all know taste is class-linked . . . to the bourgeoisie. But after an art season offering the indignities of “Bad Painting” (which reasoned that since good taste is class-linked, bad taste is therefore populist), “Structure” (a smorgasbord that could include anything), “In the Realm of the Monochromatic” (the apotheosis of Minimalism) and “Art for Future Collectors” (well, at least that is open) Cote, Diao and certain other painters, like Murray and Reich, do well to stay out of a modish market. Not that there wasn’t important work in each of those exhibitions mentioned, but such press agentry only obfuscates the values of the works on view.

Although the metaphor of painting-as-window is about as pat as its literary equivalent (that the novel is a mirror reflecting, or a lamp illuminating, social life), it is as appropriate to the paintings of Alan Cote as it is to those of Robert Motherwell. This seems apparent in the obvious shift from the concerns of his vertical, to those of his horizontal, canvases. Among the verticals, I’m thinking about Young Marxist in Moonlight and Portrait of a Maoist (but don’t get me started on those titles, which, I hope, are iconic slams at baby-talk political namedropping in the art world). These are like city windows, and glimpsed through them are what look like fragments of an urban landscape. The horizontals—Red Song for Charles Ives and Alma Gates—scan evocations of the outdoors. Cote paints in Manhattan as well as upstate, and I am tempted to guess that the verticals are city, and the horizontals, country, paintings. If the verticals are an erratic reshaping of the geometric controls of the city, the horizontals give you lots of space to breathe in—open windows, obviously. (In Southern California, I only knew horizontal windows; it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I ever had vertical windows, the windows in most Manhattan buildings reaffirming the building’s shape.) In Cote’s paintings, you get the sense of an insider looking out.

Whether or not the city/country dichotomy that I sense actually prevails, there’s a deliberate stress at the edges of Cote’s present-day canvases that “frames” them literally and figuratively, suggesting a window jamb; the intimation is that more is going on outside those confines than what the artist is letting you see. These paintings show a flight from the rigid geometry of Cote’s early work, which was a dainty organization of masking-tape-shaped rays on the epicene surface of canvases that had to do with pristine color interactions. In the recent work, there is a relaxation of line: not that it is flaccid, but now Cote is getting an interaction of shapes along with his interaction of colors. His color is now illusionistic, yet contained by these structural elements.

Was it Cote who said his early work looked as if it had a college education and his later work looked as if it had been in the navy? Whoever said it, his color is wonderful. There’s a lot of insouciant underpainting, and strokes that frankly border on the slovenly, but Cote’s darker-than-cadmium, venous blood-red is thrilling. Of course there is the old notion that red equals passion, or, alternately, that red stands for communism. But Cote’s is not your basic red. It has no coordinates in the vegetable or fruit spectrum, nor on the flagpole. It’s an idealized, oxygenated red. Probably blue underpainting. Blood and gusto. Sticks with you, like Rothko or Newman red. The lineaments of passion: it pulses, it courses.

The knockout reds are, appropriately, in Red Song for Charles Ives and (appropriately?) Portrait of a Maoist. In Red Song . . ., possibly the most graceful painting I’ve seen this year, Cote foregrounds the space with a horizontal yellow I-beam, like a hurdle. This seductive painting is an invitation to jump over the hurdle into the illusionistic background, with its seemingly receding hurdles. It is a window, suggestive of the deep space beyond, and its premise seems to be that the observer take the leap into its evocations.

Cote’s paintings, Red Song in particular, delight in flirting with implied depiction, as if to say: “This is a painting. I may or may not be alluding to deep space, I may or may not be alluding to the inductive leap you must make to get ‘into’ it: you decide.”

The same with Portrait of a Maoist. You can’t look at this vertical canvas with its three calligraphic strokes and not think of a Chinese character (letter). It both is, and is not, a character, with its architectonic oppositions of horizontal and vertical. The embarrassing title may put us at the mercy of a tongue-in-cheek Chinoiserie, but it has an activation and a directionality that makes it feel like three strokes in search of the appropriate formation. These strokes are tentative: they would like to interact, but haven’t quite decided how. They’re of the “meet you at no special place and I’ll be there at no particular time” persuasion. All of this on top of Cote’s lusty red. Cote has confidence in passion and insinuation. The unresolved, iffy qualities of his paintings are exhilarating, anticipatory.

A French proverb of untraceable origin has it that “there’s no way we can account for taste except by taste.” A kind of esthetic Catch-22, this forestalls arguments and allows the option of agreeing to disagree. But with painting, as with food, taste is a matter of succulence and fashion, rarely of substance and nutrition.

David Diao’s work transvalues taste, occupying an ironic position toward it. What Diao does is employ the services of geometry to obdurately obverse ends. Previous generations of Cubists, Constructivists, Abstract Expressionists, found liberation in the preexisting (arguably universal) geometric forms and logic. Geometry has its own dynamic, its own problems, its own solutions. A system of endless varieties and juxtapositions, of toothsome shapes that are not personal property (in the sense of being a private trademark, unless you argue that Albers staked out the square for himself): geometry is certainly in the public domain. But not Diao’s geometry: his idiosyncratic legerdemain plays with geometry, feigning circles, suggesting triangles, subverting the innocence of the rectangle of his paintings into bisected and truly irregular polygons.

A good place to begin with Diao’s vernacular geometry is with Local Color. (What a title! Besides being a figure of speech referring to regional character—the region is obviously Manhattan—it is also, like other Diao titles, an allusion to film, in this case to the title of a Mark Rappaport movie arguing the proposition that love is geometry, geography.) There’s no way of describing the composition of Diao’s work in any organized way. His neo-geometric shapes should recede or project from the picture plane because of their color, but there is no telling what shape is “on top of” another; all the shapes peacefully coexist on the matrix of the picture plane; progression and recession are relativized.

The weight of the color really is local. Roughly, the painting is bounded at its edges by would-be rectangles of pearl gray and red, and by a blue almost-triangle. But the finalities of these shapes are unresolved because they are disrupted by yellow, khaki, and red hemispheres (well, quasi-hemispheres); brown, black, orange and blue incomplete doughnuts; and two blue triangles that are pie-shaped (because of the arc-shaped base of these triangles). Eccentricity: there’s a compositional anarchy and quirkiness that borders on the slapstick.

Which brings us to The Navigator (named after the Buster Keaton movie). This one seems to be about exploding an orderly grid of abutted blue and orange rectangles with the interpenetrating sensualities of warmer orange and red spherical and triangular constructs. These forms are not actually spheres and triangles, but they are spherical and triangular: they are suggestive. Diao’s very much invented geometry is non-Euclidean, having a cheerfulness about making one’s own rules and demolishing them. Is his an elliptical geometry? A hyperbolic one? More like an oblique, or skew, geometry.

As with the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, who never get a chance to complete a meal, the dizziness of Local Color and The Navigator comes from the fact that none of the geometric shapes gets completed. (Marvell, although Euclidean, knew enough about the ironies of geometry to write about love—“As lines so loves oblique may well/Themselves in every angle greet/But ours so truly parallel/Though infinite can never meet.”12)

This isn’t the case with Diao’s Galileo, which is less chaotic (for me, perhaps, less vital). Galileo is a huge horizontal canvas with five complete rectangles, and mostly-complete other shapes. When I first saw it I quoted (from Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon’s “Girl Hunt Ballet”): “She came at me in sections, more curves than a scenic highway.” It still does come at me in sections, these laid back semi-arcs of sky-blue, yellow, and pea soup green tilting backward or forward, disrupting the serenity of uninspired nonoppositional rectangles. Although completed at the same time as Local Color and The Navigator, Galileo was begun earlier and only hints at the vitality that Diao obviously gets in the other two. Diao serene is tasteful; Diao ironic is funny, energetic, punchy. Diao is most exciting when there’s a schism between what is and what ought to be.

Painting of this kind has a critical relation to the world of technology, and to understand that we first have to note the inroads that reproduction has made at the expense of the unique art object. Which points, again, to the conflict between fashion and custom.

Carrie Rickey

For Charna and Rick.



1. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Yves Saint Laurent’s Peasant Revolution,” Marxist Perspectives No. 2. Summer 1978, pp. 58–92.

2. Kennedy Fraser, “Reflections, The Fashionable Mind,” The New Yorker, March 13, 1978, pp. 87–104.

3. Meyer Schapiro, “Style,” in Alfred L. Kroeber, ed. , Anthropology Today, Chicago, 1953, pp. 287–312.

4. Wylie Sypher, Four Stages of Renaissance Style, Garden City, 1955, pp. 16–18.

5. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, London, 1975, p. 38.

6. Thomas B. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1969, p. 15.

7. Henry Geldzahler, “The Art Audience and the Critic” The Hudson Review, XVIII/1, Spring 1965, reprinted in Gregory Baticock, ed., The New Art, New York, 1973, pp. 49–56.

8. Fraser, p. 92.

9. Harold Rosenberg, “Art and Politics,” Partisan Review, XLI/3, 1974, pp. 378–384.

10. Amy Goldin, Manny Farber, catalogue of an exhibition organized by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1978, pp. 4–10.

11. Goldin, p. 5.

12. Andrew Marvell, “The Definition of Love,” in Herbert J. C. Grierson, ed., Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems, London, 1969, pp. 77–78.

The reader may also want to consult Charles Eckert, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, III/1, Winter 1978, pp. 121 on the manipulation of fashion for profit.