PRINT Summer 1980


A Letter to Peder Bonnier from Lucio Pozzi

Dear Peder,
Here are some personal musings dedicated to you. It seems right that I should direct them to you, since they are thoughts prompted by your questions. Not only did you hit me in the core of my contradictions, but you also raised an issue I had not considered so far—namely that my method of work is too egotistic and elitist.

You had asked, “How can people, the public, know your work if everything you do is not recognizable as yours, and if, by implication, anything could be presented as yours?”

My answer was, “You say this because you and I, as well as everyone else, are conditioned by the commodity orientation of our culture. I am trying to change this attitude in myself because it seems crippling to the free flow of my imagination; and since I also find it detrimental to the evolution of a creative culture at large, I am trying to suggest this change for others.” So, I find myself not caring very much whether someone is or is not recognizing my work as mine. It’s not of primary importance, the same way as it is irrelevant to me to make masterpieces, or be original.

Then I added, “And by the way, my works are not as disconnected from each other as they might seem. There are precise, identifiable mechanisms shared by the different things I do.” Here are some of them: imitation; force of gravity; the incorporation of accidents and context; dualisms, simple or multiplied; adding; removing; relocating; translations or transpositions from one medium to another; the six basic colors of painting mixed or alone; the arranging of information in clusters and series (progressive or constant); patterns, either regular (grids) or irregular (textures); and an awareness that any elements can be combined so that density, distance and contrast, both within and without, are detectable and describable. Every work contains certain identifiable ingredients that can be found in other works, which then in turn share something else with yet others. These mechanisms, which are derived from an analysis of painting, have become for me like translation screens through which life is filtered: they can be applied to the handling of paint as well as to the movement or the voices of people, to rubbish as well as to fireworks. They are the base from which fantasy, intuition and experimentation can start off in unpredictable directions. “Everything of mine,” I said, “is related to every other thing I do, like the links of a chain. A chain is continuous, and yet its links can be distant from one another. The links can be made of very different materials and shapes, and still belong to the same chain.”

The “either/or” mentality, which produces so many artificial conflicts, is to be dismissed. The “and/also” approach to thinking and doing, which is ecologically respectful of the different sides of experience, is to be followed, no matter how utopian it might seem. I prefer the risks of such an approach to the risk of the sterility and conformity I find in so many commonly accepted approaches. The model with which I find myself working is full of dangers, both personal and public. Personally, there is the peril of dispersion and neurosis; publicly, that of total misunderstanding. Yet I prefer these to the dangers attached to any alternative course of action.

I loathe the specialist professionalism found in artists and writers. Their languages are so predictable that most points of debate now offer only false alternatives. Conservatism is as preordained as rebellion, and, under the guise of changes, we are being offered mere alternations of clichés. Should I follow the approach to culture and art that is shared by so many artists, museums, galleries, collectors and writers, I would feel as if I were becoming a bureaucrat in a Department of Art. And I am not talking here of the necessary bureaucracy that comes with the funding of artistic activities by private and public agencies, but of a bureaucracy of thinking, one that affects the very sources of imagination.

Of course, I don’t think that I have fully escaped the bureaucratic syndrome. Thus, I feel compelled to throw myself into a radical criticism of the very premises I see as common to myself and to my peers. I find that by doing this I can mature my sensibility as much as, if not more than, I could if I followed a narrower course of action.

We are all in the same predicament, whether we organize Marxist caucuses, withdraw into psychoanalytic surrealism, make our art big or small—with poor or rich materials, join in pop or punk fashion, exaggerate platonic exactitude or stress contemplative detachment. There is no escape until the above lines of work, and all others, are de-categorized and sublimated in some all-inclusive, organic flux.

How can a real change in direction take place? First, I try to diagnose the symptoms of what I consider a sickness of my culture. I detect symptoms in a few generally accepted assumptions that make me feel uneasy.

One such symptom is style. We consider style to be something that an artist should find, establish and stick to. In other words, an artist’s career goes through one or more styles, each initially pre-established. Style, as many think of it, consists of recurrent, personalized, easily recognizable forms or affectations pervading all of, or periods of, an artist’s work. An artist, it is felt, should avoid derailing from the rules of style.

I am not against the idea of style, as such, but I see it now used as a device to produce refined tokens for the market and to censor the stimuli which the richness of life in all its contradictions can offer a person or a collectivity. I want my style to be something that is identified after, and not before, the work. I am actually trying to extend myself to see how far I can succeed in preventing my style from becoming known even to myself. I suspect that, anyhow and inevitably, a style will pervade my works in the same way as meanings and associations filter into a text from the circumstances surrounding the time, the person, and the place connected with its authorship, no matter how nonsensical the prose one tries to write. My style will have to develop, should it develop at all, without my pre-acknowledging it.

Assertiveness is another symptom. We puritanically respect artistic intentions when they are explicit and declared. If they are not clear, we require a caption to explain. Assertiveness is sought in whatever formula an artist engages in, be it disordered despair or crystalline logic. Assertiveness is encouraged as a means for the artist to know how to choose, how to prefer, how to make a stand. We are not recognizing it as the commercial sales line it has become, completely devalued for any purpose of research or communication. (I am not opposed to the selling of art works. I just think that the inflexible rules of corporate philosophy need not impose themselves on the artist. The commerce of art must follow art and not art the dictates of commerce.)

I enjoy the thrill of clear choice, but I also find a rewarding feeling of discovery within reach when cultivating doubt as a generative force in my work. Indeed, how can discovery happen but outside and beyond the preconceived bonds generating it? If one becomes assertive, isn’t he understood to be assertive only according to yardsticks that his discoveries are bound to subvert or modify? By the same token, failure and success are parameters to which I am indifferent because, like assertiveness, they are normally gauged by standards of working, established before discovery takes place. To make bad works is as important to me as to make good ones, especially since the good might turn out to be bad and vice versa, and then around again. To try to resolve a work of art or an esthetic research is like performing a lobotomy on a brain. Everything becomes predictable, reliable—it can be dealt with. Mistakes are perfect, says Zen. I WANT NOT TO KNOW WHAT I WANT.

Style and assertiveness are but two of the misused conditions of research that have changed from being either its instruments or its by-products to become normative categories. They are rules that do not guide a game but cripple it. One could similarly talk of other conditions, such as novelty, originality, consistency.

By reassessing the generally accepted conventions surrounding many of the leading concepts of our culture, we might find the force to carry out an authentic renewal. We might also then find ourselves challenging the very basis of occidental thought and logic since Socrates, and this might lead us unpleasantly far, but it is still a process that has to be started.

The historic avant-garde and much recent art have been publicized through eager slogans which have contributed to the establishment of that novelty cult we still suffer from. But under the slogans what was actually accomplished? In my view, this century has so far merely dissected the vocabularies of past art to establish a revised dictionary of forms compatible with a modern way of thinking. Now the dictionary is ready to be used. In other words, I see us as inheriting not a history of artistic progress but a set of equal-value entry cards ready to be combined as needed.

We should do away with the novelty cult, yet something of the early years of modern art could be retained. Once we disregard the rigid forms and doctrinaire rules within which works of the modern movement were made, we can still derive from it an attitude of probing criticism, analysis and dynamic change. We can combine this attitude with our current interest in openness (something the modern movement, in its pioneering puritanism, would not condone) and with our pressing need to express the irrational and the arbitrary as necessary dimensions of life.

On the other hand, we are still presently so obsessed with slogans that we are unable to allow ourselves the direct experience of the situations we confront. Works of art are not seen or felt or perceived in fulfillment of all the potential of our personal or collective intellectual power. We are deluded by false clarifications such as style or novelty. We require them prior to our making a work as artists, as well as prior to our looking at a work as spectators. A conspicuous connecting thread is demanded in the activity of every artist, and this demand threatens the very essence of an artist’s tension of discovery (a force rich in contradictions).

I am trying to dam the flood of insensitivity that is menacing us, by relegating all standards to the role of interchangeable instruments and by reducing stylistic devices and techniques to interchangeable and impermanent mechanisms for the exercise of experience.

The public, I hope, will sooner or later not be asked to recognize or pay exaggerated attention anywhere to the egotistical clichés of artists. If the public starts to understand that all that is needed is a relaxed attitude, an open approach, it might finally start giving the proper attention to the fact that nothing happens until a spectator is there facing the work of art. The spectator is an indispensable part of any work, and whatever the work’s historic significance is cannot but become grafted onto the instant of perception by the spectator who contributes his emotions to a re-creation of the work. By shifting indifferently from one technique to another, according to its appropriateness for each specific situation, I am trying to ease the public into a procedure of perception parallel and complementary to my procedure of creation.

These words of mine might be misconstrued to mean that I stand for an acritical attitude and deny the importance of cultural history in favor of individual spontaneity. Far from this, I insist on the importance of having a sense of history in one’s work, but I cannot accept that history and collective culture should mean bureaucratic normativity, repressive of individual values. Both must coexist.

Now for accessibility and shared understanding: once, during the millenium now ending, each society followed cultural conventions that were flexible, to a greater or lesser degree. Art was understandable to the public within those conventions. Today, the conventions of diverse societies and stages of development are merging and are becoming disassociated from their local meanings; they are like interchangeable entry cards of the dictionary of life. For a while, as a reaction to this change, we became nostalgic for lost conventions and, until recently, tried to invent passable substitutes to use in their place. Novelty and style were our surrogates. They are now, I think, being unmasked as such. Even though they appeared to generate accessibility, it is clear they generated confusion instead.

There is a split. On the one hand, the entertainment media, including popular music, cinema and TV, are producing highly accessible artistic expressions. On the other, the static and silent media, which were once accessible because of now lost conventions, have become mysterious to the greater public. Artists are esoteric researchers. I have always suffered from the feeling of elitism that my work, and the work of others, projects on the public at large. I envy the Beatles or John Ford, who, in their songs and films have achieved sensible expression while also opening their works to a wide public access. I have tried to overcome what I feel is our handicap by simultaneously applying my work mechanisms to some situations that are entertaining, as well as to those that are more theoretical. In this way I have avoided specialization and also, I think, have partially succeeded in producing some fairly accessible situations. By stressing the theatrical side of painting, I have set up situations visited by people who were seen playing or laughing in them, or seriously contemplating them. At the same time, I have continued a speculative or intimate research which I insist on thinking is indispensable for personal and collective survival. My working approach has become similar to that of a composer of the 19th century, whose work spans operas and chamber music. The more esoteric work, of course, has a limited public, or meets with the indifference of that same public which laughs and plays, or cries at the other more accessible works. My method, thus, stems from a reaction against the bureaucratic state of culture, on the one hand, and from an attempted response to the problem of accessibility, on the other.

Finally we come back to your question, which causes me concern. Despite my attempts at finding a partial way out of exclusivity, many people feel that my approach is indeed elitist and opaque. And I find myself short of answers, first of all because everything I do is done with such tentativeness and uncertainty, is brought forward on such an intuitive level that, should I stop to ask myself detailed explanations of the choices I make, I would lose the thread of my inspiration. Second, because I am the one person who cannot say the work is beautiful or meaningful; the work itself might, as time passes, rebuke reservations about it. Third, I actually hope my method will result in less and not more elitism. Anyhow, I might not even want to answer, since, for the time being, my effort to put in focus the question mark is, for me, the only procedure that generates the most creative state.

I recently saw two films I found good: Alien and The Duelists. Nothing in common, apparently. Yet, after I learned that both were made by Ridley Scott, I inevitably started making connections. The same happens with Stanley Kubrick’s films. Why can’t artists follow the same approach? Is an artist forbidden to paint “abstract” paintings while also making “realistic” videotapes or working with living tableaux or photographic media? It seems that one may be allowed to act freely if one rallies to the slogan that painting is dead and all other techniques are legitimate. But God forbid anyone should paint both realistically and abstractly, even if the shapes and colors put together in either case are quite similar; and especially God forbid that the same artist should touch other media while he is also painting. The simultaneity of diverse actions, and the treatment of paint as a matrix for research, a matrix as valid as any other, seems to be anathema to the public.

At this moment I am carrying forward several different directions of thought, linked not by a thread of apparent consistency but by a network of cross-references. In the future, I don’t know. Nothing lasts. Even the attitude I am writing about here may get corrupted. For the time being, I find myself interested in the differences and distances among objects and among states of mind almost more than in the objects themselves. Should the bureaucratic mind be cured, who knows, we might find renewed pleasure in doing the same thing over and over again, or, perhaps, in alternating between diversity and repetition.


Peder Bonnier is a Swedish art collector living in New York.

Lucio Pozzi is a New York artist who writes occasionally for American and European magazines.