PRINT March 2002


LATTER-DAY DEFENDERS OF THE ONE TRUE PATH OF MODERNISM may think that they were blindsided, but few real challenges come at you straight on. The one offered by the artists in “Eye Infection,” the five-artist show at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, that closed in January, comes from behind and beside, but we always knew it was there. The long-term threat posed to the conventional wisdom about what makes for a decisive critical art has been rudely explicit in the work of Robert Crumb, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and H.C. Westermann since the ’60s and in that of Mike Kelley since the late ’70s. For much of that time these artists may have seemed too far in the distance to worry about, but since the early ’90s they have been creeping up on the motorcade of mainstream painting and sculpture. Now this unruly crew has lurched into the passing lane.
In this instance, credit for signaling them the right-of-way goes to guest curator Christiaan Braun. Braun has mounted an argumentatively eccentric but quintessentially American exhibition at the most staunchly modernist of European institutions, though it should be noted that the Stedelijk is home not only to one of the great collections of “pure” abstraction à la Barnett Newman but also to that inspired carbuncle on the face of the formalist tradition, Ed Kienholz’s The Beanery.
The Ed Ruscha drawing that provided the show’s title wasn’t included in the exhibition, but the phrase epitomizes the sensibility of the five artists who were, and that of the broader tendency they represent: Think Ed Paschke, Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, and Jeff Koons. What they share is a fascination with the more unsightly aspects of contemporary life; a robust contempt for rules of the road laid down by magistrates of both the establishment and the avant-garde; a knack for the grotesque that capitalizes on the collision between refined facture and aggressively vulgar imagery (Kelley, the least fastidious maker among them, is the exception here); and a wayward way with words that has fooled much of the public into thinking that what these artists do is just a gag while giving art-world mandarins an excuse for dismissing them as retrograde anti-intellectuals and therefore beneath serious consideration.
There are signs that such condescension is yielding to cautious recognition, and the improbable presence of “Eye Infection” at the Stedelijk is but one of them. Still, much of what these artists do is too unacceptable to garner a full institutional embrace. Even though Donald Judd and Bruce Nauman paid him homage, Westermann remains too “old-fashioned” in his choice of materials and techniques, as well as too perverse in what is nevertheless a formally powerful approach to sculpture, to be appreciated by much of current opinion; the same generally holds true for Nutt. Saul and Crumb are too unapologetic in the offense their work may give, to women and African Americans in particular, to be offered center stage, although, like artists from Robert Colescott to Kara Walker, they have used humor to lance the boil of repressed racial and sexual attitudes which was festering long before any of them appeared on the scene. And while some critics have attempted to co-opt Mike Kelley for fashionable categories such as the “abject” or “l’informe,” the reality is that he is anti everything that would blunt his own resistance to normative aesthetics and draw him into the academic fold. Indeed, while all the artists in “Eye Infection” use language—or their own idiosyncratic lingo—polemically, Kelley is unique in having developed a fully articulated position from which to counter prevailing art-world dogmas of taste, ideology, and class. That is to say, Kelley is almost alone in having demonstrated the full theoretical possibilities of talking back. The following remarks are based on his conversations with Braun and Stedelijk curator Jelle Bouwhuis about his work and that of his four artistic precursors.
Robert Storr

Peter Saul, New York Painter, 1987, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 108".

ARTFORUM: You published an article in these pages in 1989 in which you seem to take the history of the caricature as an introduction to the (then) recent American art. How does the work of artists like H.C. Westermann, Peter Saul, R. Crumb, and Jim Nutt relate to this history and to your work?

Mike Kelley: In that article I was primarily addressing “postmodern” trends in the art world at that time. My premise was that many artworks at that moment, despite the fact that they, on the surface, made reference to modernist tropes, were exaggerations or parodies of those traditions and, as such, should more rightly be thought of as caricatures than extensions per se. (Neo-Geo would be an example of what I’m talking about; I do not believe Peter Halley’s paintings have much to do with the history of hard-edge abstract painting.) I was not talking about works that looked like traditional caricature. Since the artists in “Eye Infection” more overtly engage the pictorial tradition of physiognomic caricature, my article does not have much bearing on their work.

Mike Kelley, Territorial Hound, 1984, acrylic on paper, 38 x 60".

I think the works of Westermann, Nutt, Crumb, and Saul are part of the avant-garde modernist tradition. Their deformations of the human figure could be seen as related to the figurative distortions found in Expressionist or Surrealist art, for example. The one aspect that separates these artists from those traditions is that such distortion is desublimated in their work. The deformation of the figure in works by de Kooning or Picasso is generally ascribed to formal exploration, not cruel intent. The artists in “Eye Infection,” coming at the tail end of modernism, could no longer, I believe, subscribe to such sublimated readings of modernist distortionary practices. Their works all have elements of black humor, and cruelty and parody are overtly entertained. In this sense, their work could be seen as part of the historical tradition of caricature. But it is also obvious that their work is not solely that. I do not believe that they relate in any important way to the caricature-like work of artists such as Otto Dix. With the exception of Crumb, whose work is complicated in this regard by the fact that it is generally narrative, I do not think of these artists as primarily “figurative.” Abstract, compositional motivations figure largely in their work—though this aspect of their practice seems purposely problematic.

As far as influence on my own work, these are all artists I very much admired in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Robert Crumb was a god to me in my younger teenage years. Before I saw Zap Comix, I had little interest in “fine art.” (And I would argue heartily that the underground cartoonists were fine artists—their works were, both ideologically and formally, so much in contradiction to the history of mainstream cartooning that they could not be seen as otherwise. Also, their adoption of the comic-book form as a presentational forum links them to other radical avant-garde movements of the ’60s, such as Happenings and Earth art, which also sought an escape from the confines of the gallery system. This is a point not often made with regard to underground cartoonists.) Without the influence of Crumb I might never have become an artist, since I had not been confronted with “radical” or avant-garde art before seeing underground comic books.

Later, in college, I was particularly enamored of Jim Nutt’s paintings on Plexiglas. I saw them as amusing comments on the Greenbergian obsession with “flatness,” a problem solved by Nutt’s application of the paint onto the back of a clear support so that the surface was completely free of texture. I also preferred his use of found images to the prevailing mode, as exemplified in the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg—who is still considered one of the major “geniuses” of the ’60s. Rauschenberg used mass-cultural images that were so omnipresent that they could be understood as analogous to abstract paint gesture—they could be looked through as signs emptied of meaning. This attitude continued into the ’80s with painters like David Salle. What I liked about Nutt’s paintings was that he chose mass-cultural material that was so low and degraded, such as the advertisements found in the back of tabloids, that they were simply impossible to render invisible. I think of Nutt (at least in this period), like Rauschenberg, as primarily a formalist painter. Yet I find his play with abstract/representational significatory tension to be far more radical and complex than the tasteful, Hans Hofmann–inspired compositions of Rauschenberg and many other compositional Pop artists of the period (Larry Rivers, for example).

Jim Nutt, I’m da Vicious Roomer, 1969, acrylic on Plexiglas; enamel on wooden frame, 37 1/2 x 35 1/2".

I was also a huge fan of Peter Saul’s early gestural paintings of commodities and war subjects. I never thought of Saul as a political, social-realist artist, as he is generally portrayed. His depictions of these subjects revel in their cruelty and are too formally perverse to be believable as liberal social commentary. Anyone who sees them as such is obviously projecting those sentiments on them in an attempt to sublimate, to make socially acceptable, imagery that Saul has gone out of his way to render impossible to accept in that way. This was his game, as I understood it. I thought his paintings were amazing deconstructions of the pretentious transcendentalism, and the ahistorical nature, of Abstract Expressionism—as well as the “elevated” self-righteous position of “political” art, though I think the latter reading is less important. For, again, I think Saul is primarily a formalist, not a caricaturist, at heart. He reveals the lie of the dominant painterly theories of compositional order of his period. Compositional foregrounding, abstract motivation, is a game that renders signification, and thus moral readings, meaningless. Yet Saul does this in a desublimated, unapologetic way. In his hands formalism itself, the exemplary “socialized” mode of aesthetic production at that moment, is rendered as a cruel, dehumanizing practice—yet he partakes in it. For this reason I believe Peter Saul is one of the most important formalist painters of the ’60s.

I must say, though, that I was most interested in the work of Nutt, Saul, and, to a lesser extent, Westermann during my undergraduate student years, when I was primarily a painter. The problematic issues they raised relative to formal composition and moral readings continue to interest me to this day, however.

AF: These artists might easily be taken as a counterpart to the mainstream abstract artists in America in the ’60s and ’70s. Do you think that your work, or at least the narrative aspects of it, helped to pave the road to their current recognition?

MK: It is only the current historical construction of the ’60s art world that renders these artists peripheral. As I have pointed out above, as a student, I was as familiar with these artists as with the ’60s heroes of today—artists like Warhol, Stella, etc. who have been institutionally glorified. The reason for these artists’ historical exclusion probably has to do with the fact that their work too openly questioned dominant aesthetic standards of the time. I suppose the recent acceptance of my work may have something to do with a critical reevaluation of their work. I have, in some cases, written about them myself or spoken of them in interviews, but their reconsideration is probably simply a byproduct of our period, in which many modernist canonical assumptions and figures are being reassessed.

Peter Saul, Prune Head, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 78 x 60".

AF: Do you think the social and political criticism, the low- (or bad-) art attitude, and the narrative aspects in the work of the older artists in “Eye Infection” are today better off in media other than painting and drawing?

MK: All these artists work with specific media, and the “content” of their work must be considered in relation to the attendant discourses and histories of those mediums. It is unfair to judge their work through considerations outside their practices. Coming out of the Conceptualist milieu, I have far less investment in specific materials than these artists do. So, our works are not really comparable in that regard; any comparison between us would have to be based on more general intentions.

AF: You’ve emphasized the formal aspects of these artists’ work and downplayed the element of caricature. Nevertheless, the content of the work was, and is, transgressive. Granted the need to avoid clichéd humanism, what do you make of the social and political aspects of the work?

MK: “Transgression,” relative to fine-art production, is a complex topic. Most Americans, I believe, would find the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, and Robert Ryman far more transgressive, because of its reductive nature, than the works found in “Eye Infection.” The artists in this exhibition purposely utilize popular illustrational tropes in their work. One hundred years ago that might have seemed transgressive (within the fine-art world), but surely not now. Saul and Nutt, for example, have made cruel and ugly depictions of the human form, but they are no more ugly than the graffiti found in any public bathroom in the country (or in de Kooning’s paintings of women, for that matter)—and such drawings are not meant to be transgressive; they are designed to be funny or erotic. If Saul’s and Nutt’s work of the ’60s was transgressive, this transgression was aimed specifically at the art world itself. American Pop art, as exemplified by Lichtenstein and Warhol, was extremely “cool” and classical in its outward appearance. Obviously, the artists in “Eye Infection” were reacting against such tasteful restriction. Now their negative reaction is itself a form of social commentary, for social forces were certainly at play in the coolness of American Pop art (one need only look at such European Pop artists as Öyvind Fahlström and Erró to see the difference). But this is hardly social commentary in the general sense of the term. As I pointed out before, relative to Saul’s Vietnam paintings (which certainly do not function as propaganda art), I do not believe it is proper to see these artists’ works as primarily addressing social, rather than aesthetic, concerns. Of course, one cannot truly separate the social and the aesthetic, but such concerns relate to all art production, and I do not wish to fall into an endless well of generalities. I am simply trying to point out here that if these artists really wanted to make effective political art or construct images of social realities, they would have done so. They did not; instead they made works that refer to their own status as art objects. Crumb is the exception here. Many of his drawings and narrative strips depict very specific social milieus, with very specific critical intent, which could be understood as politically (or at least ethically) motivated. However, this is not always the case. At times Crumb plays with the conventions of the narrative strip in a far more formal and playful way. That would be a different kind of politics—such works would be addressing the politics of comic-strip conventions as the form was historically constructed. As such, these would be a politics of the formal. I believe that this is the kind of politics more generally engaged by the artists included in “Eye Infection.”

R. Crumb, Untitled, ink on paper, 16 x 12". From a sketchbook, 1963–67.

AF: Has the divide between New York Pop and these essentially Midwest or West Coast artists been overstated? Besides geography, are there more substantial dynamics of class and taste at issue?

MK: Artists are a mobile lot and generally well aware of national and international developments in art. All the artists included in “Eye Infection” have shown internationally and in the American art capital, New York. Of course, taste is an issue, and in a sense this is linked to geographical centrality and power. Contemporary art history has been constructed in America primarily with reference to the powerful institutions centered in New York. The historical conditions that have led to dominant New York styles are far too complex to describe here. But I will say that New York regionalism is, in effect, presented as national sentiment. If the artworks of Saul, Nutt, Westermann, and Crumb are labeled aberrations, it is simply because they lie outside what has been deemed proper New York aesthetics. To link their “strangeness” to other geographical locations in the United States is simply to explain it away. But there is no city in America full of Peter Sauls or H.C. Westermanns.

You can’t really determine the class of an artist by the look of the work. There’s too much facade in art production. I think it’s safe to say that none of the artists in “Eye Infection,” at least in their early work, attempt to look “classy” (though Nutt’s later paintings do look “classy” to me: They are a mixture of old master portraiture and elegant Picasso-esque distortion—definitely a “classy” combination). If these works are not “classy,” there are plenty of other signifiers of “quality” present in them—even if they are often used in the service of perversity. No one, for example, could contest the fact that Westermann is an exceptional woodworker, but few would embrace his aesthetics.

AF: What effect has the “wise guy” stance of Saul and Westermann had on the treatment of their work?

MK: I don’t think their “wise guy” stance has anything to do with their “marginal” status in the American art world. This would have to be because of the work, because the romantic image of the ornery anti-intellectual artist is the one popularly embraced in America—Pollock is the standard model.