Philadelphia

“The Decorative Impulse”

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Most of the artists Janet Kardon has chosen for “The Decorative Impulse” are established New York personalities: Cynthia Carlson, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Kim MacConnell, Lucas Samaras, Miriam Schapiro, Frank Stella, George Sugarman, Robert Zakanitch, and Barbara Zucker. The only exception is Billy Al Bengston, whose art has not previously come under consideration as part of the new decorative movement. Kardon’s interest lies not in giving exposure to unknown quantities, but in a consideration of a phenomenon larger than any one individual artist—she wants to do something more ambitious than assemble another decoration show. The major critical focus must be on the issues raised in her carefully considered catalogue essay, because they address themselves to a controversial movement whose proponents have been practicing their form of “decorative art” long enough to have begun moving away from rather than towards each other.

Kardon divides her subject into six “categories”: Decorative/Pattern, Orientalism, Matisse, The Easel Painting/The Environment, Fabric, The Vernacular. For Kardon, no artist can be included in every category, most fall into more than one, but the distinctions are provisional and contextual. The very first label, Decorative/Pattern, is already problematic, since it names what every category should explicitly include—the “Decorative.”

The ostensible subject, then, “decoration,” is not being singled out for consideration; it’s almost as if Kardon means that decoration does not occur as such, but only in the disguise of a number of other interests, contents, sources, parallel emphases—thus the inclusion of Stella, Samaras, Bengston, whose presence “further disrupts plausible conclusions” because her aim is “to keep discussion open rather than close it.” That really is the premise on which her discussion is built. And, consequently, the title is well chosen, for Kardon deals with the impulses to decorate rather than with decoration itself; these impulses are different for each artist, and they do disrupt a unified conception of what decoration might be.

So what bothers me is not what Kardon says—which is very good—but what is left unsaid, the conclusions she consciously chose to avoid. She calls something “decorative,” but before we find out what that means, the “meaning” is disrupted. Bengston, Stella and Samaras stand outside what is being called the decorative impulse, but how can we say what “outside” is if we don’t know what’s inside, what “decorative” includes? Kardon’s premises allow a collagelike understanding of a wide-ranging phenomenon, one she sees as being “open” rather than “closed.” But how will we know what the subject is if the definition and referent of the adjective “decorative” is open to any impulse? The meaning needs to be narrowed rather than broadened, if only so that it will make some sense.

Kardon has detected a few general categories which function as “sources,” but she knows such an analysis cannot clarify why artists are studying these sources now. So she argues that the current interest in the decorative is a reaction. While this explanation fits snugly into a New York ideological niche (Amy Goldin and John Perreault have used it before to advance the “cause” of pattern and decorative art), I think the history of modern art has shown that the positive status of an art movement never relies on the devaluation of other art.

The impulse to pattern and decorate is said to come after a period of Minimalism and “sensual starvation”; decorative art is thus “anti-minimal.” Decorative art also gets points from Kardon for its “anti-sensibility,” by which she means it challenges taste. But that is just the opposite of what its adversaries say—they claim it is not challenging enough, too nice, too digestible, too easy to like and look at. These “antis” cannot account for what is positive in the new decorative art or what’s new about it.

Decorative refers to pictorial creation which does not express the ego desires of a single artist. Decorative art is anonymous, without that anonymity being used ideologically as a defensive mask, to hide an ego desire or the “absence” of an ego desire. This definition explains certain effects of decoration: its passivity (non-aggression), its tendency toward decentralization (the absence of centralized imagery) through the agency of pattern, its diffuse rather than forceful effect. My definition builds on Kardon’s insight into the impulsive or desire component of decorative art—in fact, of all art. That most abstraction can be seen as decorative if the artist’s motivation is not understood validates this definition of decorative.

The new decoration however, aspires to impersonality without indifference. That is why so many decorative artists model their work on subjects suggested by anonymous craftspeople, the vernacular, fabric design and decontextualized exotic visual cultures. Although the craftsperson expresses many things, his or her personal feelings tend to be moot to the experience of the object made. The psychology of craftspeople is different from that of the Western artist; this difference is expressed in objects as the difference between decoration and High Art. The most extreme idea about decoration would be that decoration does not occur as such in any “pure” form in High Western Fine Art, which means the tradition of art since the Renaissance. With the decay of Medieval craft unions and the rise of the notion of individual artistic genius, decoration becomes devalued as “art” and enters the realm of the nonserious, the fashionable, the false and parasitic (feeding off the “discoveries” of High Art).

Yet the decorative impulse repeats itself from the Renaissance until this time, and historically there has been the constant attempt by artists to drive art out of its anti-social tower and back into the everyday world. Not by chance, “decoration” becomes an issue at the initiating moment of modern art, when art becomes an expression of individual feeling, a “will to power.” The willfulness of this drive and the opposing drive to decorate makes the achievement of decorative art impossible as Art. So the New Decoration fails in advance as decoration.

Yet, with my definition, it is a little easier to decide what the decorative components in a painting are, and to what extent an artist might be considered decorative. It is, for example, impossible to reconcile the decorative with any form of violence or aggression, these being extreme manifestations of egocentric desire. Samaras’ spiky chairs, his sado-masochistic fantasies, even his “quilts,” exhibit a personal horror, a frightening destructiveness which is anti-decorative. Stella’s latest works, sharp, cut-out metal reliefs, jut out into space with an aggressive force; the razor-blade edges speak of a sensibility exploitative, sarcastic, unsympathetic, cold, manipulative, utterly lacking the self-effacing qualities of decoration. I find that Cynthia Carlson, Barbara Zucker, and Robert Zakanitch have moved away from decorative concerns, and this has nothing to do with the value of their art; it only means that it’s no longer “decorative” or as close to decoration as it had been.

No artist escapes the charge that part of his or her work is not decorative because any art which holds our attention will have more than one thing going on in it. And, conversely, no artist can escape the fact that part of his or her art must be decorative, because, for instance, materials themselves have properties which human will cannot alter, and, further, artistic control ends when art is seen by others. If I find that artists like Kozloff, Bengston, MacConnell and Kushner approximate the effects of decoration more than the others, it may be attributed to the various ways we experience a relaxation of their self-will in the conception or production of their art.

Jeff Perrone