PRINT October 1992


Jack Bankowsky

Professing a fascination with the American culture-scape that shares as much with the wide-eyed dazzlement of the 19th-century innocent abroad as with the sophisticated deliriums of contemporary old world emissaries like Jean Baudrillard, Dick Hebdige recounts a North American odyssey that took him from the “echoing ball courts” of Chichén Itzà to the “blasted city center” of Detroit. As a practiced decoder of cultural signs and the author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Hebdige is well equipped to read the “ruins” of our truly ancient continent. Indeed, just when the thought of another continental futurist enthusing over America—that mythic place where the future has already arrived—is enough to send most of us running for cover, Hebdige rediscovers “the new world” for the colonialist misnomer it is (and just in time for Columbus’ 500th anniversary).

We have lifted one image from Hebdige’s road trip for our October cover: a large-scale replica of the Santa Maria, moored in the turquoise shallows of Canada’s five-million-squarefoot West Edmonton Mall, seemed a fitting symbol of five centuries of colonial imposition.

The forefathers of the people Tina Barney photographs may not have come over on the Santa Maria, but they must have packed the Mayflower. Squaring off with Barney’s Watch Hill white elephants, David Rimanelli discovers an artist who is more than simply a sensitive chronicler of the low-key gentility of Eastern Seaboard Protestants. Pointing to the unexpected artifice behind Barney’s snapshotlike vignettes, Rimanelli homes in on the spark of the ordinary, the prosaic nonevent, that is her special purview and genius.

Neil Jenney, a Yankee individualist if ever there was one, introduced his figurative painting style in the late ’60s, made a splash in the “New Image Painting” show, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1978, yet has remained an elusive presence throughout his career. We asked artist lzhar Patkin to check in with this notoriously reclusive painter. What emerges is a sense of an artist whose methodical production moves in minute increments, and of a “realist” vision informed by Pop art, and understood as a counterhistory to the canonical New York School narrative against which Jenney cut his teeth.

In anticipation of the retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we indulge in a little of what the glossies might call “Matisse Madness,” with articles by Arthur C. Danto, Yve-Alain Bois, contributing editor Donald Kuspit, and painter Philip Taaffe. Danto opens the discussion with a consideration of the relationship between Matisse’s fundamentally decorative sensibility—essentially that of the Nabis—and the larger Modernism that his innovations played such an important part in defining. Bois follows up with the proposition that the core of what he calls the “Matisse system” lies not so much in the artist’s “liberation of color” as in his assertion that the “quality” of color is determined by the “quantity” Indeed, in Bois’ antiessentialist reading, this seemingly inconsequential, technical matter “represents a gigantic leap in the history of painting,” a “serious blow against the dualistic tradition of Western thought.” Kuspit locates Matisse’s achievement in the “uncanny mix of instinct and ideality” reflected in his work. And finally Taaffe meditates on the relationship between practice and belief in the art of his empowering precursor.

Andrew Ross joins our regular columnists in this issue with his bimonthly “Weather Report.” For Ross, the author most recently of Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, weather “includes all the ways, forms and contexts through which our body responds to and is constructed by discourse about the environment.” Now Ross asks, “In what context other than the purely figurative does it make sense to talk about culture through the language of ecology?” Monitoring several scary fronts in which “green rhetoric” is moving into the “sphere of media culture,” he cautions that there is “a world of difference between tuning into a TV signal and listening for the signal of global warming.”

Finally, another of our contributing editors, Thomas McEvilley, visited John Cage in his New York apartment just weeks before the death of the composer, author, and inspiration to whole generations of artists. In what proved to be one of the last interviews Cage granted, he argued gently with McEvilley over the relationship between art and politics, and took a stance of typically Cagean equanimity with respect to the loud noise (or, better, music) of machinery in the street outside.

Jack Bankowsky