PRINT November 1979

A Tournament of Rose’s

THE SHOW, CURATED BY Barbara Rose, at New York University’s Grey Gallery, is called “American Painting: the Eighties.” It is to go on to the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston and then to the American Center in Paris.

One is taken aback: the Eighties? But there’s no mistake; such is the title and claim of the show: the 41 painters elected by Rose shall represent the major painting of the 1980s. It seems preposterous; the painters may be worthy, but to make such a claim! And this seems (partly) intended: one is thus compelled, at the very start, to seek out Rose’s rationale in her catalogue essay. Since it is distinctly her show, one tends to test the paintings as samples of her taste. Even if one resists the polemic and moves on to question the work, one is still referred back to Rose. Forty-one paintings by 41 painters, one work per artist: given such a format, one has no recourse but to the authority of the curator.

Forty-one painters, the oldest 51, the youngest 27. A few are well known (e.g. Ron Gorchov, Elizabeth Murray), and a few have shown together (Stewart Hitch, Vered Lieb, Peter Pinchbeck and Thornton Willis; or Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz and Susan Rothenberg), but most are unknown and, we are told, unknown to each other. Why these painters, and why together? Again we, and perhaps even they, must turn to Rose for an answer. For the work is extremely diverse; diversity, not to say, eccentricity, is the very character of the show.

There are, for example, “New Image” works (two treelike hands on a black field by Lois Lane, a red windmill on a red ground by Robert Moskowitz, a black horse in profile on an earthy field by Susan Rothenberg); geometric abstractions by William Conlon and Leonard Contino (reminiscent of Al Held, among others); a Neoplastic work by Elaine Cohen, a highly reflexive painting by Susanna Tanger, and a perspectival conundrum by Howard Buchwald; an Orphist pattern of swirls by Mark Schlesinger and a sumptuous abstraction by Meredith Johnson; Surrealist-like works (reminiscent of Mirò and Ernst) by Richard Hennessy and Nancy Graves. Some recall Jasper Johns (Pierre Haubensak, Mark Lancaster, Steven Sloman) and many refer to Abstract Expressionism. These are facile remarks, I know, but they set the field.

The show is “pluralistic,” which is to say that it values risk as a second best to success; and the principal risk seems to be eccentricity. Seldom do the paintings articulate themselves or each other; and one senses that the “pluralism” may be proscriptive, that is, a curatorial line that excludes more than includes. There are connectives, from painting to painting, but no real commonality, so the connectives seem rather superficial.

One notes, with unease, that much of the work is reactionary, by which I mean merely contrary or sympathetic, cutting short any reflection of a dialectical nature. Many of the painters are contrary to aspects of Minimalism and post-Minimalism and sympathetic to aspects of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism; yet rarely in the work are these influences, whether positive or negative, worked through. Thus the work is related, more often than not, by a negation or an affirmation that is inadequate—that is, by debility. Here too one is drawn to Rose for proof of a deeper engagement in prior art and a deeper commonality as to issues of the next decade.

So one turns to the essay (the catalogue is subtitled “A Critical Interpretation”) for many things, not the least of which is to have the one painting format fleshed out in critical biography and the disorder of 41 painters set into theoretical coherence. But more: why these painters for the ’80s? what needs do they address so as to make the ’80s as much as theirs? what serious ambition relates them, as a generation or a decade of painters? It is only natural to be skeptical, given the claim made for the work.

Such reservations are preliminary, and the essay may persuade otherwise. It may just be that I am, in part, schooled in a theory (one would almost say ethos) attendant on an art from which Rose and her painters now recoil. Incidentally, it is no contradiction for Rose to dismiss an art and theory that she once elucidated so well: in fact, if it were not so strategic for her to do so now, it would be a real tribute to a mind free of dogmatism.

In a foreword to the essay Rose notes her love for Abstract Expressionism. For her (and here she speaks for many) the art after Abstract Expressionism, in its rage to rid itself of tired (European) conventions “like drawing, illusionism, brushwork, scale, metaphor and compositional relationships,”1 rid itself of much of its value. Such reductionism disenchanted her, even more so when it led to post-Minimalist work, “conceptual art, performance, video,” which she read in toto as a disgust for craft and public alike; nevertheless, she resisted “a retarditaire ‘return to realism.’” Then, recently, four shows stayed the tide: “Cézanne, the Late Works”; “Monet at Giverny”; the Jasper Johns retrospective; and “Abstract Expressionism: the Formative Years.” The first two revealed the mature syntheses of two masters; the Johns retrospective honored a painter who kept to the craft (brushwork, imagery, subjectivity), apart from the pressure of Minimalism and post-Minimalism; and the Abstract Expressionist show revealed the young Pollock, de Kooning, et al. and the often neglected Krasner, Tomlin, et al.—here the relation to Surrealism was important. The effect, Rose states, was salutary, but it seems more cumulative than critical. But since her painters have worked for some years, the comment seems autobiographical.

The essay proper is close to diatribe: it is of tactical importance to Rose to discredit certain art, and her revisionism is often callous where it is not calculated, but there are a few good things. She is very good on the pernicious equation of “quality” and “novelty.” As she tells it, quality as criterion was suspect to the “positivism” of Minimalist theory: it was “undefinable.” Thus, as “interesting” replaced “good,” novelty replaced quality. Transcendent elements were outlawed, and a premium was put on reducing, eradicating. This, plus the premium on novelty, led to the bogus eschatology of the worst thinkers on art: the boobie prize to be given to the first to be last, the first to kill painting (whatever that would mean).

Rose bears down hard on such positivism (she means the literalism of Judd and others) in that it led art to shy away from content and metaphor; no less innocent is the notion of generic self-criticism, so crucial to modernism, as then explicated by Michael Fried—ironically, in a critique of Minimalism. Here Rose is so enraged that she fails to execute her criticism and opts instead for facile quips: she speaks glibly of “reducing recipes” and “instant styles.” And yet one does know what she means.

She is more provocative when she assesses post Abstract Expressionist art as “provincial”: “By provincial I mean art that is determined predominantly by topical references in reaction to local concerns”—all to the neglect of “universal truth.” This (what? cosmopolitanism?) is important to Rose’s enterprise, and typical of two things: her naïveté (?) as to how art is produced (as opposed to how it is surveyed) and her ideological notion of what absolutes are where art is concerned.

Rose seems unsure of any lasting value in Minimalism; she seems, for example, unaware of how it is related to the critique of “anthropocentricity” (or our preconception of the world as an extension of ourselves) that was crucial to much of the literature and philosophy of the time. Minimalist art, she says, merely made what was illusory literal: light, space, and scale became things bereft of any “transcendental dimension”—a “reality” that alienated imagination. Again, one knows what she means and agrees in part; but she reads all this simply as a symptom and not a critique of “reification,” which amounts to an interpretation that, if not backward, is reductive of a complex idea.

Here Rose damns photography as quickly as she does Minimalism and post-Minimalism. She cites an essay by Richard Hennessy (a painter in the show) that appeared in Artforum in May. They disagree only on particulars, e.g. on whether the “vogue” of photography led to, or resulted from, art’s retreat from imagery. But all the old saws come out: photography is not a “high art”; it is mechanical and cannot “transcend reality” (Rose) or make intention felt (Hennessy); it has no sensuous surface (Rose) but offers instead a “merely nasty residue of photochemical processes” (Hennessy); it divorces hand and eye and generally lacks “sensorial-intellectual interest” (Hennessy); in sum, it is without the “metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of imagery that it is the unique capacity of painting to deliver” (Rose).

To Rose and Hennessy photography is important only as a scapegoat; they deem its influence on painting a bad one, and so blame photography for painting’s debility. Then (as if this were not enough) they subject photography to painterly criteria and condemn it in general: one can only conclude, yes, photography is not painting.

This is the tactic of her essay: she feels a victim, which is a status that grants her the moral authority to degrade one activity—photography here; Minimalism and post-Minimalism elsewhere—in order to upgrade another—the painting under review. The painting should not require this.

Rose writes: “The serious painters of the Eighties are extremely heterogeneous—some abstract, some representational. But they are united on a sufficient number of issues that it is possible to isolate them as a group.” These issues include: a devotion to painting as a “transcendental high art”; a tactile-optical method that is “pictorial”; a concern with “aura,” through craft and imagery. They are also, she says, united vis-à-vis Abstract Expressionism. Rose cites, in particular, Hofmann and Pollock: Hofmann, because he, like her painters now, worked with “touch,” on an easel, and thus on a human scale with a form and format oriented to the viewer, and worked toward synthesis; Pollock, because, apart from “heroism,” he was able to balance “abstract form and allusive content.” This last, she says, is the real legacy of Abstract Expressionism, “not the ‘big picture,’ automatism, action painting, flatness, et al., but the synthesis of painting and drawing and a new conception of figuration . . . Her painters, she goes on, extend the ”continuity of image with surface” that one sees in the work of Still, Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt toward a “contiguity between image and field” that one sees in the work of, among others, Jasper Johns (my italics). To do this, “enhanced by an equivalence of facture” (that is, by a similar execution of image and field) is to identify the two “with the surface plane in a manner that is convincingly modernist.” This may be so: it is also convincingly academic.

As we shall see, few of the painters tell us much that is articulate now about the relationship of image, field, surface and stretcher. There are exceptions perhaps: the formed canvases of Ron Gorchov and Sam Gilliam do, as she says, “amplify” the image more than “identify” the painting as an object; but here one is not sure what is meant by “image,” and, elsewhere, by “pictorial.”

The terms are ambiguous, and the ambiguity is to the advantage of Rose and her painters. It allows them to equivocate as to what is representational and what is abstract; it also allows them to state that these images do not evoke a Cubist image/field and so to open the future of painting—to open a future mindful of “the fundamental assumptions of modernism.” Could it not be that these are old issues re-dressed?

No less ambiguous is Rose’s use of the term “synthesis,” a quality that she values in her painters as well as in Cézanne, Monet, Hofmann and Johns. Whereas one knows what she means as regards the latter, one is less sure as regards the former. “Synthesis” as a term is often opposed to “analysis,” but the two operations (if they are two) function as one in the best work. One sees this in Cézanne, who examines prior painting in the work so as to subsume it and make it his own. This is the “synthesis” that the painters in the show lack. More often than not, they combine styles or allude to prior painting in a way that is neither synthetic nor analytic.

There are other uncertain terms, like “radicality.” Rose is right: that is often used as a quasi-political synonym for novelty; but it is important not to cast out the concept with the term. She writes: “that art which commits itself self-consciously to radicality—which usually means the technically and materially radical, since only technique and not the content of the mind advances—is a mirror of the world as it is and not a critique of it.” This is true of the debased “radicality,” but there is another. An artist is radical, or original, if he can cut past the ideological styles of the day to the bases, or origins (radix=root) of his art in such a way that, when he returns (so to speak) to the present, he seems to reinvent the art, or at least to reset its parameters or displace what was thought to be its “essence.” This is far removed from the “conservative” (which is merely to retain an old ideology, or tired style, like that of Abstract Expressionism now) and very far removed from the “eccentric” or the “idiosyncratic” (which is to use a style that one cannot understand at all).

This is to be expected when work is so subjective, and is valued as such by its critic. Rose writes that such painting is free of “any system of public thought or political exigency” and is thus “ipso facto revolutionary and subversive of the status quo.” But: if it is indeed free, i.e. somehow pure, it is unintelligible. Art that thinks itself free is not self-aware and so is very unfree. It can only come close if it engages whatever “system”—public thought, esthetic ideology, etc.— there is.

To reason as Rose does is to misread the political import of painting. Rose cites the Surrealists to the effect that “psychic liberation is the prerequisite to political liberation and not vice versa,” and Herbert Marcuse to the effect that the “private sphere” is all there is now that is not “administered.” One agrees, but only in part: our own day of “psychic liberation” makes even the “private sphere” suspect: too often such liberation is eccentricity or conformism in disguise. And where one can agree, the painting in the show tends to fall short: it may only offer “psychic liberation” to the artist.

Rose is right that art that is overtly political—engagé art—does forfeit its “role as moral example.” But this leads her to think in terms of art on one side and life on the other; which in turn leads her to think in terms of absolutes and essences. As already noted, she disdains “provinciality” as an “impediment to universality.” There are, no doubt, universal truths—birth, death, what-have-you—but how these are thought, let alone painted, is by no means universal, and it is provincial or Rose to think that it is. Quite clearly, she mistakes ideological conditions for the “nature” of things.

As regards painting, she stresses, “illusion, not flatness, is the essence of painting.” One agrees but this both is and is not true. Illusion is ever the essence, but not so long ago, as Rose knows, flatness seemed to be the essence. The point is that these things are only less or more essential: it depends on the time, the place, the art. Even if we grant that illusion is now the essence, does it follow that paintings that are merely illusions are essential? One may prefer painting that shows how illusion works, and theory that shows why we now need such painting (if indeed we do); that is, why our ideology sponsors it now.

Rose is also right to insist on quality as the criterion of painting or any art. But to her, schooled in an Abstract Expressionist ideology, this means an art that is subjective and mythopoeic; for me, schooled in later ideology, this means an art that is self-aware and myth-free. Must we leave it at that? Rose favors an art that is transcendent, an art that speaks to the universal. I favor an art that also reflects—even if negatively, by an exemplary silence—on the here-and-now, an art speaks to the universal and to why we propose certain things as universal.

Lastly, a few words on the historicity of the essay. At the onset Rose quotes Clement Greenberg to the effect that in time we will see more correspondences between “Old Master” art and our abstract art. This seems true. However, Rose rarely relates the painting in the show to anything but Abstract Expressionism; this is not to say that most of it is merely “neo-AE.” Nonetheless, for Rose the quality of the new painting has much to do with the quality of Abstract Expressionist painting. This is fair; certainly there are “correspondences.” Yet one feels that nostalgia for the old, as much as faith in the new, compels Rose here—compels her to write a reactive history that is negative but not critical. In effect, she clears the historical field, but a lot of the contemporary field as well.

One knows that this is a polemic—a proposal, that is. But the arrogation of “American Painting: the Eighties” rankles: rarely does one read in the future perfect tense . . . what will have been. Yet such is often the tense of historicism, which Karl Popper once called the “substitution of historical prophecy for conscience.” Rose’s essay is prophecy, but one wonders about the history, to say nothing of the conscience. Her epigraph (from Greenberg) seems thus parodic; it reads in part:

To hold that one kind of art must invariably be superior or inferior to another kind means to judge before experiencing; and the whole history of art is there to demonstrate the futility of rules of preference laid down beforehand: the impossibility, that is, of anticipating the outcome of aesthetic experience.

The burden of the essay falls on the painters. One is provoked to speak of them as a whole, which is unfair. However, it is hard to regard each on his or her own merits.

Many of the paintings are gestural. Joan Thorne paints (from the tube and with a palette knife) a dense web of line that engages paint, space, and an intuition of the canvas. Her painting is in layers, rather than grounds, and so reads both simultaneously and in time. Her line, it is true, is not descriptive of any representational image, but neither is it definitive as line. Thorne responds “content” to the question of the critical issue in painting today; however, in her work nothing contains it. No rhetorical form enunciates her “image,” no intentionality, as it were, guides her intention.

Whereas Thorne recalls Pollock in particular, Nancy Graves refers generally to the Surrealist aspect of early Abstract Expressionism. She also layers her “images,” and thereby seeks an “equivalence.” Her scale (and to a degree her method) is various: apparently in her painting she has encoded her former styles, and here and there motifs do point to other work. This is more synopsis than “synthesis,” and is not very articulate. Her motifs are not public (as, say, early motifs in later Picasso may be); such mapping seems idiosyncratic.

This is symptomatic of much of the work. Richard Hennessy also uses many motifs in one work; yet his, unlike Graves’, is idiomatic. The painting reads in surfaces: the ground is painted gesturally; the image is Surrealist in nature; and there are a few lines on the plane that allude to a detached perspective. The work recalls Mirò, among others, but only recalls him. Hennessy writes, “The pursuit of style is a trap.” This may be, but he merely springs it and flees. The result is something more suggested than articulated.

Dennis Ashbaugh is synthetic in another way. His prior work includes long shaped paintings: these he has made, in effect, the motifs of his present work. This is common operation in modernist art. However, it is not very effective here. Such “synthesis” returns Ashbaugh too directly to an Abstract Expressionist mode.

Hermine Ford and Sam Gilliam alone work well with a given style or genre. Both use formats that connote “landscape,” yet both are able to control the association: Gilliam with a bevelled canvas and Ford with a varied facture. Both are expressionist, yet both ground painting in an intuited grid, which is distorted somewhat and so directs a reading that is elliptical. One follows, with interest, the various scale or foci and the convergences and displacements that they create.

In her essay Rose notes the danger of a “trademark.” Many of her painters use images that are just that: personal icons. Stewart Hitch’s radial “burst” may impact into the ground, and lock into the x and cross, of the rectangular painting, but it also reads as an abstract signature. Bill Jensen’s image, however, is not retained as such; it is more a result of form-making, more an occasion for painting (which is perhaps no less suspect). This is true too of others like Vered Lieb, Susan Crile, and Frances Barth, whose images, though also occasional, are not idiosyncratic.

The Gorchov painting also seems like a personal icon. It has obvious merits: one likes the way its shieldlike form evokes the feel of space, that is, the way it is informed by our body—its sides and concavity. Such distortion is expressive in a way that Elizabeth Murray’s is not. And yet the form and motif seem somewhat fetishistic.

That is not bad per se; it is perhaps a concomitant to painting that is iconic in nature. Thornton Willis’ wedge image operates similarly; it reads like a displaced portrait. The painting, Willis says, is “metaphorical in the most general way, as a metaphor for myself . . . however, metaphor is a word that seems to imply my being outside of my work, which in some sense is impossible.” Gary Stephan’s torsolike image is also iconic, both abstract and concrete; this he sees in terms of an “object/image” or painting/picture ambivalence (similar to but not the same as figure/ground).

In the Stephan painting this is not an either-or question; it is, however, with “new image” painting. Such work seems eclectic, egalitarian, in that everyone can “get it” in one way or another. But that conceals a hierarchy: as in allegory, the responses are more and less enlightened. Levels of meaning (this is different from multivalence) insinuate levels of consciousness. Red Mill by Robert Moskowitz may be (1) a representation of a mill; (2) an ironic (and so modernist) exercise in figure/ground relations; and (3) a Pop-ish painting deemed camp because it can be read as either (1) or (2). I am sure the “New Image” painters do not intend this; yet such “eclectic egalitarianism” is as specious as that of Christopher Jencks’ “postmodern” architecture (which condescends to use many styles in order to address many sensibilities—as defined by what? class, education, etc.?). “New Image” painting is the latest; perhaps it is modernist (Rose gives it a genealogy when she relates it to Malevich’s White on White); and yet, if it is, this does not bode well for “modernism.”

I do not mean to labor the negative: some of this is good work. But it is important—this is our decade too—to note the problems.

Formal rigor is one such problem, perhaps because many regard the work of artists like Ryman and Marden as an “impasse.” Few painters, for example, address the issue of figure, ground, and surface in a way that is not modernist-trite. Particular aspects of Pollock, Hofmann and Johns that came down to us as devices are not worked through. There are exceptions: Willis and Stephan perhaps, or Pete Omlor: but they are exceptions.

Have these painters engaged the past strongly? Many, I think, have not. Some dismiss it forthrightly. But the past is not thereby displaced (the test, at least for T.S. Eliot, of “the individual talent”). Nor does it then inform the present, except totally.

A neglect (disdain?) of its dialectical complexity weakens art. And these artists do seem (wondrously) free of any anxiety of influence, because the historicist, or genealogical, model of art history is now discredited. But historicism does not end: it merely passes to a historicism that is even more partial (in both senses of the word).

Whatever its faults, the show is adamantly pro-painting; and it comes as a reply to those who have doubted its integrity for some time. One feels, however, that serious ambition is lacking somewhat here.

Hal Foster