New York

Ronnie Landfield

André Emmerich Gallery downtown

Another aspect of current modernist painting involves the relational format, advocated as long as the work avoids “Cubist space”—the shallow, boxlike space of easel pictures —through the use of color. An accepted model for such work is Jack Bush, whose eccentric personal calligraphic forms may have inspired Friedl Dzubas, whose current exhibition demonstrates a similar manner of execution—deliberately awkward, the shapes operating between flatness and atmospheric illusion. Another painter using relational elements is Ronnie Landfield, whose recent paintings combine rectangles with quasi-Morris Louis stripes.

One way of approaching at within such circumscribed structures is to see whether the critical issues inform the work or whether they merely oeroetuate the support system. Clement Greenberg’s early writings, for example, dealt with the relation of art to economics and politics. The necessary purification of each art form was not for the sake of revolution within the discipline, but in order to “keep culture moving,” to maintain the vitality of art in a capitalist society. Criticizing T.S. Eliot’s reactionary view of industrialism, Greenberg supported Marxism as the only social order that would permit the continuity of culture. Recognizing that capitalism is threatened by advanced art, he wrote in 1939: “Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have today.” In 1953, he asserted that the value of Marxism was its ability to reconcile work and culture in a society where leisure no longer has class value. The ideas defining a formalist position were congruent with his experience of the economic history of art—the decline of the easel picture in the West, the development of mural-sized decorative work, and a changing support system, one aspect of which was seen in the W.P.A. Project. But like many Marxists of his time, literati such as Edmund Wilson, Greenberg has turned full circle until his ideas about quality have begun to parallel Ekio’s argument that the attainment of a high civilization depends upon the “persistence of social classes,” contradicting his earlier view that a high industrial society would result in the elimination of classes. He now supports industry as a capitalist—modernism has created a powerful market structure that it maintains in the ’70s by reinforcing the prescribed conventions through values earmarked by quality and perpetuated by a steady string of artists who support and are supported by the system. All the criticism within this framework takes the economic structure for granted, for arguments and differences only reconfirm these interests. Ironically, even strong attacks from the outside suggest the entrenchment of the belief. The capitalism of this position is not in itself culpable, but the involution of the dialectic which prevents modernism from realizing its original purpose, to “keep culture moving.” When taste and quality are based on formal conventions and viewed as ends rather than by-products, art can only refine its past. As Greenberg himself wrote, capitalism is antithetical to truly advanced art.

While the discussion of art within a paradigm such as modernism requires an acceptance of the framework, all art criticism is not useless. When it does not shift the context for viewing art, as the writings of Greenberg and Leo Steinberg have done, it operates like normal science in extending methods and data within an accepted framework. The value of the analysis depends upon its usefulness in viewing work. For example, Michael Fried’s discussion of literal and depicted shape in Stella’s paintings provides a concrete access into the work. On the other hand, as Lucy Lippard has pointed out, his discussion of Olitski supports the work upon premises having little visible connection with the paintings, tautologically implying that the work is structural because good and vice versa. The difference between these arguments is that of description and prescription. While both presuppose attitudes toward the work, the first is informative while the latter is merely hortatory. The recognition of frameworks in which certain points are being made permits relative judgments of value, quality, and interest.

Since the advent of Earthworks and dematerialized art, an analysis of the support structure around each framework has become crucial. While most of this work currently operates within the gallery system, this is a result of the absence of alternatives which will sustain the activities of artists. The support systems in themselves are only negative when work that is essentially antithetical is displayed within these contexts. The alternatives to such systems are neither more pure nor less capitalistic; Conceptual artists who criticize modernism yet rely on a European support structure are either naive or hypocritical. The most valuable aspect of a criticism dealing with these frameworks would be the elimination of the idea that a support system is historically necessary because it is firmly established within the culture. This might suggest more appropriate alternatives for the distribution of certain art forms, allowing traditional structures, now circumscribed by dogma, to be interesting as anthropological rather than religious phenomena.

Lizzie Borden