PRINT October 1992


I am not a writer. I am a painter. I can call a painting a “painting,” but I don’t really know about “literature” by artists. On the other hand, this magazine is called Artforum, so I’m in the forum, and I’ve got my toga on, and I’m ready to roll. . . Since an artist’s work and the ideas behind it usually come to the public via labels that do not speak the language of the creative process, perhaps an artist can be the best conduit for another artist’s ideas. This new series of visits between artists could give voice to ideas without becoming enslaved by formal, academic, or journalistic shopping lists. These are not the terms in which artists work, live, think, or talk to each other, and many times that’s how the story is missed. We work and talk in “real” terms: somewhere between “Where do you get that great ga-gagooey oil stick” and the desire to defy labels and to get on with the work.

When Neil Jenney first presented his “Bad Paintings,” in the late ’60s, they were grouped under the annoying label “Funk Art,” primarily because of their look. We would never have understood Jenney’s intent without his own insistence that he was thinking of himself as part of an American realist tradition that stretches from the Hudson River School to Andy Warhol.

Neil Jenney: I was stuck in a historical corner called “Funk Art,” which was a real entity in the ’60s, but the foundation of my contemporary expression was in abstract art. In those days hard edge was still far out. The New York School didn’t become an accepted center until Pop art rejected it, became “in,” and was understood. Up until that moment it was all Paris. Izhar Patkin: à la Monet Water Lilies. Pop art moved us to an American experience and made a clear separation between Paris and New York. No way European anymore; Pop art came and said “We will no longer play the game of moving paint around. We’re going to just pick an image of America and say: Look, that’s important.” Pop art is realism, and realism was not considered contemporary in the ’50s and ’60s. Warhol’s “machine” paintings paved the way for realism again. His use of the silk-screen was a contemporary innovation equal to that of formal abstraction. But the real news was actually Marilyn with cheap lipstick and eyeshadow—a new realism that’s American.

In 1968-69, when Jenney made the “Bad Paintings,” Concept Art (you couldn’t get more factual than that) and Photorealism (at the other end of the realist spectrum) were the cat’s pajamas. You can imagine how they crowded his realist vision.

Concept Art reduced to Idea Art—got to get to science in the end. But artists are actually always dealing with object-making. And it can’t be pseudoscience. In the end, Concept Art doesn’t have the profound implications of science, so I didn’t find it fulfilling. Photorealism looked like second-generation Pop. It was just copying photographs. It missed the point of realism. I wanted to do realism, which is about things relating to other things. They wanted to make it nice and neat; I wanted to make it nice and sloppy. The “Bad Paintings” I called my “unconcerned” style. I wanted content; in Girl and Doll, Husband and Wife, Risk and Hazard, I was trying to show the structure of content. So, no Funk Art, please? I was concerned that my work was misinterpreted. That’s when I added the titles. This literary dimension was about directness—an added layer of meaning; it was not an illustrative reduction. So your style was not so “unconcerned” after all. Making it look casual is not easy. Useful spontaneity is planned. You have to prepare for it. When did your “unconcerned” style become “Bad Painting”? That was Marcia Tucker’s idea. She said “Bad Painting” not “Bad Art.” I said, I can go along with that!

Richard Marshall’s “New Image Painting” show presented “ten painters who utilize imagery in non-traditional and innovative ways and make images the dominant feature in their paintings.”

After 1971 Jenney’s image got smaller and the frames got bigger; the paintings got more refined and the titles louder.

I realized that the whole “Bad Painting” thing was holding me back. I wanted to make good paintings. . . . I was thinking about ancient art and how it was the high tech of its time, whereas today art is on the low-tech side. I thought that it was time for an age of refinement. You know, when you say “bad paintings,” we look and say “They aren’t that bad, in fact they are kind of good.” And when you say “good paintings” we say, “You know, they aren’t that good.” They aren’t that good. . . [laughter]; I’m constantly disappointed with the level of perfection when I look at them. Don’t you think that the “good paintings” actually address a taste that is considered bad (slick, Hallmark, atmospheric)? Mind you, I have no taste, since to me everything is cultural information, or prejudice. Are you saying that the paintings are not really sophisticated? On the contrary, I think they are extremely sophisticated exactly because they embrace imagery that is closer to “regionallike” craft then mainstream or media-derived high art. Your feeling about the lowness of these paintings will be confirmed when you see my new paintings. [laughter]

An important story that is still missed is the American story and not the one that deals with formalism and the rebellion against it. That saga has been packaged and repackaged over and over again. The story I’m referring to is the one of content—the narrative that links the chain of American events.

Every generation has its dragons: Abstract Expressionism was responding to the Cold War. American culture was neurotically obsessed with the threat of communism. Them and us. Take out the French water lilies, or the country scenes of Cézanne, and you are left with the paint strokes. Throw it into the melting pot, forget where you came from (we were building a new, homogenized, modern America), and you get to the perfect neutral story of formalism, the one that actually fought for freedom from propaganda, interpretation, or any content other than its true self. And why not? We won the war!

Then comes the reign of a centralized, corporate America. The new unity of the new American dream. It is to be the dream of the whole world. Corporations don’t stop at home: Coca-Cola, comics, Campbell soup cans, and Hollywood stars are the still lifes, landscape paintings, and portraits of this new world. It is all Americanerie for worldwide export (just as chinoiserie was a colonial import). America coming to terms with its own popularity. Europe seems so far away.

The talk about high-art/low-art or commercial-art/fine-art was informed by the same sentiment as the “Marxist” interpretation of abstraction’s autonomy. “Labor” was the key. The story of the abstractionists as the noble workers toiling with true, good paint (and without bourgeois illusions) was replaced by the story of the Pop artists as champions of the valuable middle class—our true, good work force—with every bourgeois dream intact. Minimalism (industrial strength), the other American image, was also sustained by the fruits of this interpretive labor. I’m not being cynical here, these efforts were all well meant—artists building the dignity of their own generation.

Whatever the intention was, Gold Marilyn remains the embodiment of a corporate Greek tragedy.

Then came the big crash. A new war. One we were not going to win. The cities falling apart. Racial unrest. Women’s rights. The sexual revolution. Role reversals. The rule of Hollywood studios over stars is over. Birth of the common hero. Ecology. Expansion of the nuclear family. Gay liberation. American youth dropping out, Woodstock, romancing the land, fighting bigotry, fighting for equality and justice on a scale that was unheard of before. It was the biggest revolution in the American history of values since the Civil War. The American dream was no longer the dream of the whole world. Actually, the world was getting sick of us. Neil Jenney and other artists came into the picture. They wanted an image of America that wasn’t the supermarket, corporate image but, maybe better, the local bodega.

A humanized awareness. I was trying to offer an alternative image of America—trying to expand on just the big-business aspect of America that was on the realist scene at the time. My task was to make my life more intimate and small; like digging a hole.

Neil Jenney’s work is an important link between Pop and today’s art. You don’t measure this kind of importance by how many artists copied his style (they didn’t). He is important as a major link in the narrative of our national identity. At that point artists were not producing work within a stylistic peer group, but as a heterogeneous group sharing a revolutionary time together. The women did “masculine” work; the men took to sewing machines. They became involved with craft as labor, not with ideas about labor. Regionalism played a role in this new, decentralized New York dominance. “Ethnic” expression was beginning to rise to the surface. Decoration was the vehicle to discover Third Worldism. There was a desire for an intense democratization of the system—you are who you are. The rejection by young American artists of their country’s role of world leadership ironically led mainstream European art into the future; as we saw later, with the trans-avantgarde, Italians became Italian, Germans became German.

Inevitably, I was going to make American art. That’s where my soul is. I’m built American. But not only American. Actually your work is very New England. Think of Currier and Ives; it can almost be seen as Americana of the pre-American-empire times. I wanted to go from bigness to smallness. It was a change of task. I didn’t want that gun-power/American right or wrong/Vietnam nightmare.

We are going to have to find new models to save not only society, but the environment and the world. Consider the difference between a forest and a tree farm: it’s the difference between complex diversity and homogeneity. Modernist style was “monocultural”; it was international, but, like tree farms, homogeneous and, as we have learned, without cross-fertilization, tree farms die out. Jenney’s paintings partake of a New England WASPy heritage, but they present white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as one ethnic group among many, not as the masters of the universe. Forget the monolithic attitude; these paintings share the wall with other cultural expressions. Difference, diversity, pluralism: Jenney’s work is an important link to a present and future generation that is anticipating and already participating in the arrival of the global village.

Izhar Patkin is an artist who lives in New York.