PRINT March 1985


THROUGHOUT THE 1980S one large-scale international art survey has followed another, manipulated with all the now-familiar devices of authoritarian populism. An international junta of curators has been using art to present spectacles devoid of any meaning more specific than the assertion of power. Their tactics are to let selections overlap those of fellow junta-members in order to strengthen the cause; to use the same language as the others; to pretend to be men of the people as a disguise for snobbish, old-fashioned connoisseurship; above all, to say as little as possible. Assertion has replaced analysis. History is invoked constantly. The pompous tone of voice indicates that argument would be in vain. The message is that since history operates in a dimension beyond human endeavor, the wisest option is to bow to its demands. The resulting surveys are dumb in every sense of the word—dumb as only acts of recession diplomacy can be. The excuse is that great painting is being allowed to speak for itself. In fact it is being gagged.

“The history of modern painting . . . has been the struggle against the catalogue,” said Barnett Newman. Ironically, his remark is given pride of place in the huge catalogue accompanying “La Grande Parade: Highlights of Painting after 1940,” the final exhibition organized by Edy de Wilde as director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Newman would have had no qualms about the glossy souvenir tome produced on this occasion; de Wilde’s essay justifying the whole affair is little more than a thousand words long, and (except in three cases) the only critical remarks consist of excerpts from artists’ own statements. Disclaiming “theoretical considerations,” de Wilde states that his intention is neither “to give a graphic description of an art-historical evolution nor a picture of the trends that developed in this period,” nor to “prove or to illustrate anything short of the possibilities of painting as the expression of a vision.” He is a brave man. Where most curators would have abandoned it, de Wilde has persevered in his vague project.

Two fictions have sustained de Wilde. The first is the rebirth of painting. Repeating a familiar story—that between the years 1960 and 1980 painting was assumed to be dead but has now been resurrected—he added (in a speech he delivered at the opening) that the young artists of today “have given us back the possibility of using our senses.” Encouraged by this, he chose to show the work of some classic Modernists alongside that of painters who “renewed and continued the tradition” during the period when painting lost its ascendancy. These he calls “born” painters; for them painting is “not a choice but a way of life.” His second sustaining myth is that of opticality. As he notes in the catalogue, to him painterly “vision” is “a dialogue between eye and intellect, between eye and emotion, between eye and idea.” Much of de Wilds theorizing is an attempt to take traditional studio talk and give it philosophical validity. Treating the “eye” as if it led a prehensile existence divorced from the remainder of the serisorium leads to an impossible conclusion—on the one hand an exaggeration of the mystique of some unverifiable painterly talent, on the other a minimization of the degree to which one organ of the body is consonant with thought and feeling, in order to assert that it has powers of its own, equal to if not greater than intellect, emotions, and ideation. “What the eye cannot understand has not been admitted,” he says of “La Grande Parade.” But what can the eye understand? Not Surrealism, it seems. When Clement Greenberg insisted (in “Modernist Painting,” 1961) that “visual art should confine itself to what is given in visual experience and make no reference to any other order of experience” he was excluding the “literary.” Yet while Greenberg attempted to erect a self-sufficient structure of thought to defend his decision-making, de Wilde relies on incidents from cheap novels. Painters must follow their destiny. Viewers must quiver before fields of color and turn into naked eyeballs. No further reaction is necessary. In a recent interview he argues that a great painting is capable of answering any question you ask it. The trouble is that he refuses to ask any questions. Among the artists statements he omits from the catalogue is one by Sol LeWitt from 1973: “Those who understand art only by what it looks like do not understand very much at all.”

De Wilde’s elevation of formal issues provides another important clue to his thinking: “The poetry of the painter relates to the structure and the rhythm of forms and colours, to the colour of light and its relation to space.” Bland though it sounds, this is the most sweeping statement he makes. It asserts that there is a language of painting which overrides periods and movements, which is the durable medium of an unchallengeable tradition, that it is capable of serving the most disparate ends, such as those of romanticism and realism, or the nordic and Latin visual temperaments he discerns within the Western tradition. It comes as no surprise, then, that his parade of postwar painting finally seems so monotonous. In the process of moving from room to room, from Picasso to Léger, from Léger to Braque, distinctions are erased and what should have been a mosaic ends as a monolith. Matisse, Miró, Mangold, Mondrian, Marden, Bacon, Baselitz, Bazaine, Beckmann, Bonnard, Buren . . . Room-size churches and enclosed, ancillary chapels are devoted to single artists whose essence is to be celebrated. Yet this is done again and again and again. The result is a kind of overkill; de Wilde’s blockbuster tactics reduce even the essences of great art to a uniform homogeneity. “La Grande Parade” was “named with some irony,” he asserts, conceding that the developments he includes are “sometimes irreconcilable.” This knowledge makes it more deplorable that he manufactured consistency when he found inequality, and transformed his strolling parade of motley performers into a triumphal march.

De Wilde cannot be faulted in his own terms; he has no terms. Nevertheless it is possible to know what he does not do. No women are included among the 40 artists, although at least a goodly number of female nudes can be counted on the walls. Politics enters, but in such a refined way—Constant’s L’Interrogatoire, 1983, or Fautrier’s “Otage” paintings of 1943 and 1944, in which beatings and imprisonment are estheticized—that the effect is worse than no politics at all. Among other things “La Grande Parade” is a review of de Wilde’s exhibition and purchasing policy for the Stedelijk, in the form of a set of curtain calls for favored artists. (For Dutch gallery-goers this may be getting tedious. Just under half of the artists in “La Grande Parade” were featured in the Stedelijk’s “’60–’80” survey in 1982.) Although this leads one to assume that inclusions in “La Grande Parade” are made according to the tingling of his own taste buds alone, de Wilde is keen to deny this. The introduction to the catalogue repeatedly refers to those youngsters who have taken up the tradition of paint and canvas, suggesting that the work in “La Grande Parade” has provided a bridge to connect them with a past they were cheated out of by the radical ’60s and ’70s, and that he has been guided by their taste in this case. My reading of de Wilde’s subtext to all this is as follows: “I made the right choices for years and nobody listened. New art is a vindication of my point of view. They may not know it yet but they owe it all to me.” Let’s just hope those kids are grateful. The bad news, though, is that there is a strong possibility that he is misreading their dislocations and deconstructions as a return to the Left Bank. He never actually says so, of course—but then, he never really says much.

Perhaps de Wilde is most culpable for having refused to push his point of view to the limit. “Painting” in and for itself has validity only in that it is a medium for art. As a medium it has been espoused or ignored because of shifts in thinking about image and information. Why is Robert Rauschenberg omitted from “La Grande Parade”? Or Andy Warhol? Perhaps because doing so makes the 1960s seem more like a period in which painterly painters were ignored and adopted the role of keeping the learning alive, like monks in the Dark Ages. As for the ’70s, painting may have profited greatly from being deposed from its superior position and relegated to equal status in a nonhierarchical structure of art forms, each capable of relating to the others. The hope that, after each apparent setback, it will come bursting back, with impasto so thick it will smell bad and take years to dry, is forlorn indeed. De Wilde wants something even more forlorn: the persistence of a certain kind of looking, instead of continuing challenges to that way of looking and others. He reveals a King Canute mentality which willfully ignores the fact that from Duchamp onwards painting has survived only because of a series of conceptual injections which force a reconsideration of the entire enterprise not as a studio-bound guild system with hermetic rules and a lifetime’s training, but as the odd activity it is.

The hanging—with a few exceptions it is one artist per room—underlines the parade motif; visitors are choreographed along a set path from one point to the next. Disappointingly, the prescribed order adds nothing except the expectation of the next float. Disoriented viewers are left with only one solution as a key to the structureless structure of “La Grande Parade”—to “cruise” the text, as Roland Barthes suggested, discovering flashes of delight or vivid fragments. Turning a corner immediately after seeing Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935–42, the visitor comes face to face with Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967–68. Invited to comment on this juxtaposition at the press conference de Wilde would say only that there was no intention whatsoever, as if drawing conclusions from comparisons between works of art offended him by its sheer crassness or somehow damaged the works themselves by violating their poetry. But if you did not know that Newman had wanted to make a statement about Mondrian in the “Who’s Afraid. . . . ” series, you might guess as much if the two were placed in adjacent rooms. If you knew but thought it irrelevant it would surely be advisable to keep them further apart. It matters less that de Wilde is (unaccountably) feigning stupidity than that he considers his exhibition above such discussion. Emphasizing pure vision without acting on the hints it offers is like saying your prayers and then refusing to go to heaven. The theme of silence casts doubt on other potentially suggestive juxtapositions. Is any significant equation suggested between Matisse’s Chasuble rouge (Red chasuble, 1950–52) and Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curve VI, 1982? Why, at around the same time, do Jean Dubuffet and Jasper Johns both employ multicellular structures, in which cells have names? What relation exists between a dripped Pollock and a late Matisse cutout? The eye can provide an answer to the question of whether a relation is meaningful in each case, but not to what the nature of each relation is; thinking is necessary for that.

De Wilde has taken 234 approved “highlights of painting” by 40 sanctioned artists, hung them on the walls, written a few platitudes avoiding the issues, and filled Amsterdam with circus posters of Fernand Léger’s La Grande Parade, 1954, which makes the whole affair seem as if a circus has come to town. Yet none of this is totally unfamiliar. The same high-toned atmosphere characterized the catalogue for “A New Spirit in Painting” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1981; the lavish use of quotation to replace critical justification is reminiscent of Rudi Fuchs’ direction of Documenta 7, 1982, the catalogue for which included essays by Jorge Luis Borges, T. S. Eliot, and Goethe. These huge, meaningless shows used as propaganda to persuade visitors that famous museums are as up-to-date as they ought to be when in fact they lost their way years before will not seem strange to habitués of the Tate Gallery, or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Twentieth-century art has not always been regarded as a circus coming to town. James Joyce defined the situation of the 20th-century artist in three words: “silence, exile, and cunning.” The condition of Modernism—and de Wilde is dealing essentially with late Modernism—is one of alienation: the product of willed or voluntary exile. Separated from their languages, cultures, and audiences, painters were so isolated they even began to lose confidence in their own powers. Of the paintings in “La Grande Parade” that show versions of the artist’s studio, three are particularly interesting. Philip Guston’s The Magnet, 1975, takes his accustomed starting point: the studio, the artist’s table, the artist’s signs. Like so many other Guston paintings, it resembles a parable Kafka forgot to write. The outside world has made an inexplicable invasion; lightbulb, book, and clock all seem subject to some mutual attraction as irresistible as the pull of the tides. Separate elements of the picture nudge each other alarmingly, and the black outlines seem compelled by the need to make question marks. In Picasso’s Las meninas (après Velasquez), 1957, Velázquez stands like an empty chest of drawers or a hinged playing card. The brushes which form the fingers of each hand are so awkward they prevent his working. As a giant, he is isolated even more from the other members of the Spanish court—the pinhead, the Siamese twins, the two dwarfs, the dog. And a contemporary version of the theme, Anselm Kiefer’s Innenraum, 1981, presents a fantasy on the idea of an interior space as an extension of an artist’s mind. As stark and forbidding as the penetralia of a pagan temple, it is a monument to wasted space, territory demarcated for no apparent reason. Though the painting shows that an artist needs a larger arena than others, his demands are out of keeping with his sense of self, which is so disturbed that no human figure is visible; by definition, it is suggested, an artist’s house is uninhabitable. Guston, Picasso, and Kiefer, for example, imagine themselves as strangers even in their own domain.

Some postwar artists were literally exiles. Arshile Gorky’s art, for example, treated by André Breton as a contribution to Surrealism, revolves around nostalgia for his native Armenia, evidenced in a Romantic reverie in which the eye looks past objects; impressions of miniaturization or expansion take control, the sense of the self alternates between omnipotence and helplessness, and a fantasy state is summoned up in which time can be suspended and the exile restored to a childhood kingdom he thought he had lost forever: the paradise garden on the shores of Lake Van. But actual physical exile constitutes only one form of Modernist alienation. In the postwar period artists continued to try to undo their own structures of thought, often at enormous cost to their acceptance. Pollock’s and Guston’s incorporation of figurative elements in their paintings, for example, was completely detrimental to their reputations. At times breakthroughs were made in total isolation. Working in a state of exhilarated joy for the last part of his life, following his operations in 1941, Matisse made old age a major theme. It offered a total freedom—the kind of freedom he found in his cutout method. Wall-size decorations like La Perruche et la sirène (The parrot and the mermaid, 1952) blend the artificial environment of his studio with the created world of his painting. The synthesis he made late in his career, perhaps a synthesis of Oriental influences as much as Western, was so subtle, and the conclusions to which he impelled his method so disruptive of everything that easel painting had meant, that it could be argued that no real influence has yet been felt. But the best example of a breakthrough made for an audience of one is the late painting of Georges Braque. After his “Atelier” series, 1949–56—balanced, accomplished variations in a late Cubist style—he turned away from his studio-based work to make landscapes. Previously the phenomenological aspect of his art had been subject to a certain decision-making process. Now, by abandoning laboratory conditions in order to confront weather, with its power to change appearances and light, he forced himself to accept one basic Cubist corollary—that an event is a multiplicity of interlocking relationships. The strangeness of these landscapes may result from the contrast between the transience of the states they capture and the recalcitrant medium in which this is achieved. Braque wasted none of the lessons of the “Ateliers”; attention to the layering of levels of paint replaces the constant interpenetration of marks on the canvas itself. In these paintings he pushed his art to extremes, recognizing the malleable, object nature of the medium and the total unpredictability of the world outside. Mediating between the two, his pictures discarded those ideas of intimacy and atmosphere on which he had previously relied, only to embrace them once more.

The classic example of an intellectual exile is Max Beckmann, whose painting Cabins, 1948, shows all the late fury of a man trying to summarize his knowledge, to try once more to shout a message to the world. Cabins depicts an obscure struggle: a heavyhanded but respectful sailor tries to manhandle a huge plank with a giant fish lashed to it—and is failing in the attempt. Around him the picture space splits into compartments, in which irreconcilable episodes are taking place. Above his head is a Bible scene, while below him a meeting is taking place. To his right and left are women waking and sleeping. In the top lefthand corner a family mourns a death at sea and at the bottom right a less ghostly young girl sits at home, among her ornaments and flowers, painting a steamer. Locked into their respective frames, these characters resemble illustrations in stained glass windows. But where are the windows? Set back on one side of the space is a door, and on the other is a lifeboat. Are we at sea or on land? In the past, present, or future? Dreaming or wide awake? In each case the answer seems to be “yes.” It begins to seem that a lot depends on the harassed seaman just managing to hold his prize. Somehow his job is to control the entire ship. He is having as much success as Laurel and Hardy have when they move pianos up and down flights of stairs. From teatrum mundi to theater of the absurd. The huge white fish, either imperturbable or dead, looks out of the picture with a forgiving expression. In this painting the state of being between places and states and times has been exaggerated to make a nightmare vision of existence. Diagrammatic, even proverbial, with fish out of water and passengers all at sea, Cabins offers a kind of truth but keeps it just out of reach, in a region of high, sad comedy where men prevent fish from swimming in order to stow them aboard sinking ships. Whatever the fish symbolizes, dramatic irony decrees that it must be the one thing that can save the ship.

Beckmann’s anger is characteristic of all these exiles in “La Grande Parade.” They were discarded, mocked, or misunderstood to the end, living from hand to mouth, or miserably in great luxury like Picasso. Ripping them out of their web of social and cultural history, leaving them mute, vacuum-packed, does nothing to redress these injustices. It does not help an understanding of their conditions or the meaning of their works. It does not do anything except state that this is history of some untouchable, unarguable variety. De Wilde has linked these master painters together as a company of jolly circus folk, doing tricks for a clapping audience. The idea of the exhibition as spectacle, with all its consequent pomposity and waste, is simply the product of cool recession thinking. Showing people fighting for their lives as entertainment—isn’t that what Roman emperors used to do? Eventually the recession will end and this kind of thing will be over. After all, the Roman Empire collapsed eventually. The trouble is that we may have a long time to wait.

Stuart Morgan is a regular contributor to Artforum.