PRINT April 1981

The Guggenheim: Singular Pluralism

EXXON’S “19 ARTISTS, EMERGENT Americans,” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is under attack from those who think art should remain pure of corporate sponsorship. But with President Reagan projecting budget cuts at the National Endowments, to whom can museums turn for support but to corporations? Think of it as blood money for art’s sake—a cynical statement, perhaps, but true. Be that as it may, in “19 Artists” the indefatigable Peter Frank, self-avowed “pluralist,” has, despite his claims to having as catholic a taste as there is around, surprised everyone with his curatorial orthodoxy. He likes obsessive abandon and cool austerity—but not the range in between. This “pluralist” show has been filtered through the singular sensibility of one equally intoxicated by language and art history—something that’s not unexpected from a critic whose strongest suit is flamboyant esthetic diction (his catalogue essay is chockful of adjectives like “haptic” and “lambent”).

To describe the Exxon show as essentially verbal is not to say it’s non-visual—but it’s not far from the truth. Ten of the artists involved explicitly employ language with their imagery. The renewed interest in wordplay, in using language as captions or annotations to paintings, does not suggest the artistic incapacity of its practitioners but points to an interest in saying what can’t be painted: a command, an explanation. Or perhaps those painter/wordsmiths, inspired by conceptual artists, are interested in a doubling effect—what happens when an image of a train is juxtaposed with the noun, “train”? A survey of the explicitly verbal painters in “19 Artists” includes Manny Farber, who incorporates scribbled movie notes among the figures making up his monumental rebuses. Barbara Kruger, giving a nod to advertising signs, offers photoenlargements captioned by commands such as: “Wait.” Both Bill Richards and Gael Stack paint Twombly-esque palimpsests, paintings that’ve been through a lot of erasures, smudge-outs, scrape-downs, buildups. Darryl Sapien, cartographer of an invented but uncharted territory, offers plenty of explanatory text on charts and maps.

With the exception of Heidi Glück and George Woodman (more on these later) all the artists who aren’t explicitly using texts (Vernon Fisher) or hieroglyphs (Guy de Cointet) implicitly use art quotes; their work paraphrases art historical authority. This isn’t to say the Implicits are sophomoric, but it does mean they rely too heavily on external art authority to validate their own work. In a word: Derivative. Tom Holste’s painted-wood and cast-rhoplex relief assemblages owe a lot to the Russian Suprematists, while William Haney and Jim Richard, each in his own idiosyncratic hyper-realistic way, paraphrase academic sources: Haney to a “Familiar Art Quotations” end (Piero playing in Matisse’s Red Studio as seen through the corridor of Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio), and Richard with hugs and kitsches (his watercolor, Sunning the Glass Brick, is a ’50s dream kitchen, with a glass brick resting on the dinette and a mysterious, misplaced piece of statuary on the utility ledge). Philip Larson, a scholar specializing in American cast-iron architecture, makes cast-iron ornamental templates that are commanding neither as pure decoration nor as pure process; they’re “justified” only as the artist’s homage to a moribund type of architectural detail.

Either by design, or more probably inadvertently, Frank has identified two competing strains in contemporary art practice: the explicit language-wielders and the implicit workers, who are having private conversations with art historical influences or precursors. In his catalogue essay, Frank suggests that his exhibition can be read “. . . as a vote of confidence in the continuing richness of American art—indeed, in the increasing richness of art all over the United States.” But that’s pure jargon. Too deep in appreciation of the trees to see the forest, Frank doesn’t realize what he’s dug up.

The Explicits’ work is on exciting, if not always completely resolved, ground. It’s no surprise that the most mature work comes from an artist who’s been at it for the last 40 years: as I write this, Manny Farber is, I believe, celebrating his 64th birthday. Emergent? Farber is a particularly crucial curatorial choice (and it is with the devotion of a friend, fan, former student and fellow film and art critic that I proceed to write about him) because there’s probably no other artist (certainly not in the Exxon show) who contends so aggressively that painting can be about painting and be autobiographical and still address issues integral to popular culture.

Perhaps Farber has been able to make the rapprochement between formalist painting and content-full compositions because for most of his life he has juggled two careers, as formalist (equals elitist) painter and as populist movie critic. From 1975 on, Farber’s paintings have reflected what he has long known on a gut level: that his two interests are congruent, not parallel. No longer suffering from cultural schizophrenia, Farber’s new work pushes sophisticated color and framing problems to their limit (as his non-objective paintings had done before), while in the foreground he works up narratives to entice an audience of joes and janes. Although there are probably only a dozen or so people in the world who could identify the individual rebuses depicted in Farber’s paintings, (and the movies from which they’re quoted) anyone can appreciate the skewed-scale movie world/personal world he depicts, in which a Kewpie doll is the same size as a Hershey bar, a train track the same width as a ruler. Farber’s vantage in his new compositions is consistently aerial or aerial-upended, so that everything he paints produces the curious sensation of seeming about to slide off the canvas. From far away, these are dazzling, full of serpentine tracks that navigate the viewer’s eyes through the work; up close, they’re full of loaded images, visual puns, double-entendres and the kind of narrative complexity you’d expect if you were to graft a Marguerite Duras nouveau roman with a Howard Hawks comedy. In his oil drawing Jean Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine,” Farber quotes an eloquent line about the difficulty of integrating the visual with the cognitive, a line that also describes his own work perfectly: “Don’t look at me like that; you’ll wear out your eyes.”

If it seems as though I only had eyes for Farber, I wasn’t alone: his work eclipsed just about everything else at the Guggenheim. The only other powerful work by Explicits is offered by Barbara Kruger and Darryl Sapien. Kruger explores the parallels between advertising and art, implying, but not stating, that in either domain imperative copy and larger-than-life images are the “hooks” that capture the viewer. Sapien, whose concerns are more difficult to pinpoint, is involved, variously, with diagramming social issues (as in his annotated drawing, Crime in the Streets) and mapping fantasy territories (as in Sapiad where he evocatively projects himself as Hellene).

What Farber says with assurance—that the verbal and visual not only do go together, but in fact must—the remainder of the Explicits express in a more tentative manner. Stack and Richards are filled with anxiety about the markings they’ve committed to canvas, as though, like Cézanne, they were experiencing grave doubts as to where the line should be drawn. Michael Brakke draws a water tower with oilstick, captions it “#27 Copied/Hide/Wait,” draws it again, captions it “Photo Duplicate,” and exhibits his drawings alongside Cibachrome documentation proving that he did indeed draw the water towers. A Stack or a Richards may not know where the line should be, but Brakke is didactic enough to prove he’s actually drawn it.

Amid all this, Frank includes two oddballs, or more precisely, misfits: Heidi Glück and George Woodman, the only two exemplars of “normal” painting free of art or cultural quotation. Woodman, a “lyrical pattern painter”—if such a genre exists—paints in pastel acrylics, and his canvases resemble maps on which political units are busily staking out territory. Would that Woodman’s order existed in real global situations—the units comprise all-over, symmetrical patterns of complementary pastel nations. Where Woodman’s work is pastel and biomorphic, Glück’s is hard-hued and hard-edge.

That’s 14 of the “19 Artists”; how do they, individually, and the show, as a whole, stack up? The five artists I haven’t mentioned are really unmentionable, and the only possible reason for their selection must have been the curator’s mania for geographical distribution. On the plus side, Frank selected a range of the work each artist has made over the past decade (save for Kruger), so it’s possible to see a progression, how the ’70s affected the art of each. This idea of 19 “mini-retrospectives” is well-conceived, but there just isn’t enough space to do it effectively or thoroughly and some of the suites of work were too elliptical to make sense.

On the minus side, the lack of curatorial discrimination was disappointing. Much of the work is more interesting for the conceptual problems it poses than for the verbal/visual territory it stakes out. All in all, “19 Artists” suffers from overconceptualization and underexecution. It’s full of art that has good ideas, but a good idea isn’t always worth a thousand words, nor does it necessarily make a good picture—unless it’s in the hands of a Farber, a Sapien or a Kruger, someone who can bring idea, image and text into equilibrium.

Carrie Rickey a film critic for the Village Voice, frequently contributes to Artforum and other art journals.