PRINT October 1979

Cosmetic Transcendentalism: Surface-Light in John Torreano, Rodney Ripps and Lynda Benglis

THE WORK OF JOHN TORREANO, Rodney Ripps and Lynda Benglis, especially certain “sparkling” objects which present rather than represent light and use it to dazzle our eyes rather than to reflect a surface, seem to me a new species of “luxury painting.” Clement Greenberg once applied this term to French painting in the period between the World Wars. Its sweep included masters as different as Braque and Matisse. They all came together in a pursuit of sensation for its own sake, a luxurious handling of means with a near indifference to subject matter, or at most the acceptance of a convention of subject matter. For Greenberg, the problem with luxury painting was that it had lost all “truth to feeling.” It did not bespeak the pessimism—later, after World War II, an existential pessimism—of the postwar years, but continued to cling to the mood of “optimistic materialism,” as Greenberg called it, on which modernism came into being. By forcing this mood through an attention to surface, conceived as a rich material rather than a critical resource, luxury painting comes dangerously close to kitsch: Greenberg took any forcing of feeling to carry with it the threat of kitsch, i.e., of an art working more with received than achieved values, an art which did not question the conditions of its own givenness but accepted them as inevitable. If artistic conditions served to carry content to new heights of meaning, their own viability was never at stake. The difference between kitsch and modernism—and the luxury painting which almost makes modernism itself kitsch—is the difference between unselfconscious and self-conscious art, where the generation of consciousness of the conditions of art becomes art itself, and the goal of art.

Now in Torreano, Ripps and Benglis what we have is a new luxury art that comes close to being kitsch by reason of its “sensational” handling of material. But that is not the end of their art. What redeems it for what I have before called Existential Formalism is their self-consciousness about its sensationalism, about its kitschy aspects. Torreano’s use of cut glass, Ripps’ swashbuckling, pasty-paint rosettes, and Benglis’ razzle-dazzle, shine-in-the-dark phosphorescence—all of this not only verges on an outright materialistic kitsch, but reminds us of the kitsch culture that we all, willy-nilly, inhabit. Torreano’s cut glass has its affinities with artificial gems of all kinds; Ripps’ rosettes seem like enlarged artificial flowers, at once as mushy as real flowers and nightmarishly giganticized, as in some Magritte dream gone soft; and Benglis’ knots have that look-at-me, I’m-in-the-spotlight, don’t-I-shine look of an abstract Liza Minelli strutting her stuff. The objects of Torreano, Ripps, and Benglis both borrow and enter, as art has been doing since Pop art, the realm of kitsch culture, and as such become a demonstration of what has been called the fine arts/popular culture continuum.

But the point is not their demonstration of the continued viability of the continuum; it is these artists’ self-conscious use of “luxurious” materials from the kitsch culture—or what passes for luxury, “big time”—to produce an art which mocks its own kitsch dimension and, in so mocking, transcends it, presenting a new decorative ideal—in fact, a kind of decorative transcendentalism, i.e., a self-mocking, gaudy, tinsel-and-stage-paint transcendentalism. In essence, this is a transcendentalism that knows its own cosmetic character, and which is an expression of a theatrical ambition. What Adorno deplored, the convergence of entertainment and art, and what Michael Fried insisted upon, the radical separation of theatre and high art, is, in the work of Torreano, Ripps and Benglis, mocked and used as a new source for self-conscious transcendental effect, a grand effect which, in the very process of being achieved, shows the cheap stuff of which it is made. Torreano, Ripps and Benglis accept the fact that in today’s world art and entertainment are one, that modernist self-criticality and theatricality converge, and that the attempt of either side to repress the other only leads to the decisive infiltration of the one by the other.1 The critical point is to explore the way each does in fact infiltrate the other, dialectically convert into one an-other. The new luxury art makes it clear that the distinction between high art and entertainment is obliterated today.

In Torreano, Ripps and Benglis the major mechanism of this convergence is the use of light, that material which does not seem to have to demonstrate its transcendental nature, yet which seems so matter-of-fact. Torreano’s shields, with their elusive incandescence, Ripps’ efflorescing, almost blowsy flowers, with their faint fluorescence, and Benglis’ knots, as archly naive in their projection as Ripps’ quasi-callow flowers, all fill with a garish luminescence—all raise a barrier of light around their material. This flashy luminosity at once confirms the material’s luxurious character and the “sensational” way it is handled: the light functions as a kind of anointing material and, at the same time, separates us from the object, so that it seems to shine in its own detached world as a kind of beacon that we might be foolishly lured toward, a kind of siren song full of unexpected rocks that we might crack up on. That is, the light seems at once organically of the object and an emanation from beyond it, cloaking it in mystery. It is the same kind of mystery as that generated by an externally applied cosmetic: it is meant at once to bring out the natural, organic color of the face it decorates and to demonstrate its existence in a realm beyond the ordinary, beyond the one its viewer inhabits.

The mystery generates an illusion of transcendence, and while we know that the illusion is manufactured, entirely a matter of artifice, we would like to believe the transcendence is inherent to the material it adorns: the shields, the rosettes, the knots all shine with a transcendental light, which is at once responsible for their “organic” character and their luxurious look. Transcendence is the true luxury, the true trick in a world recognized as being strictly material, and it is their ability to generate the illusion of transcendence while being self-evidently, even grossly, material, that gives the works of Torreano, Ripps and Benglis their significance. Purely materially, these works seem corruptible, and even quaint in this corruptibility; and yet, at the same time, they emanate from the very heart of their garishness an incorruptible material, a light that absolves them of their vaudevillian traits. Despite themselves, these works become shamanistic, their puerile pursuit of the cosmetic revealing itself as a loyalty to the absolute—which today has to be invented anew out of its vulgar opposite.

We have come a long way from the idea of the transcendental as tragic and timeless; it is now theatrical and timely: its whole point is to make the art object seem timely, smart. It belongs to its world as a necessary luxury, reminding us that nothing is raw and innocent these days—neither the illusion of transcendence nor the matter out of which it is made. Instead of that early inexperience in abstraction which led to a naive belief in its transcendental impact and implications, we are over experienced in abstraction, and know the cosmetic character of its transcendence—the cosmetic value of transcendence for all matter in our world, giving it at last that luxurious character which will outlast its innocence, and make us aware that our use of it is not innocent.

Donald B. Kuspit



1. I first pointed this out in “Authoritarian Abstraction,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXXVI (Fall 1977), pp. 25–38.