New York

Robert Kushner

Holly Solomon Gallery

Robert Kushner may be called a “decorative artist” but that doesn’t mean he makes one kind of art or that decoration is his sole concern. Several paintings in the show are, oddly enough, saved from “abstractness” by their identification as decorations. Peach Gate has curtain tassels attached to it and the “painting” is a parted curtain hung from the ceiling at the show’s entrance. If the addition of things like tassels was perfectly OK for Rauschenberg it was because, after all, his combines were still emphatically paintings. Kushner turns this inside out, going from decoration to painting to decoration once again, while eliminating the stretchers and frame as a safety net in case the objects get overlooked for their use value and become ART. Pink Leaves, a playful cut-up and cutout painting with jacks and stars is the only relatively unsuccessful work from the bastard art-decoration standpoint—it looks too much like a plain old abstract painting, albeit a fairly crazy one. What makes Pink Leaves interesting is the use of readymade fabrics out of line with New York (and American) taste—sari cloths, glittery, paisley, silver, net, sheer, garish, with 14th Street color—which Kushner exploits for their cultural status as vulgar, ultimately exposing a class bias. When Roger Fry asked his readers to overlook the erotic content of Indian relief sculpture (as irrelevant, as an affront to Judea-Christian values, to formalism) he unconsciously betrays the provincial snobbery Kushner turns back upon his audience with a vengeance.

Most of the paintings are “about” the surface and substance of cliché. Etude looks like a parody of all those artist and model compositions, typically the scene of a seduction. I suspect a savage love/hate relationship with Picasso’s studio interiors. The “artist” stands outside the spectacle; the “dancer” appears in white Danskin, covered up and unavailable as submissive erotic object, involved in her own abandoned, narcissistic movements (an idea perhaps about decorative art itself) and, curiously, as an image, more erotic for all that. Bloomingdale’s and Same Outfit share that traditional modern interest in social life, with the looks, styles, attitudes of bourgeois custom, going back at least as far as Manet. These subjects are a perfect foil for the artist who indulges in his fascination for fads and fashion while satirizing them as a form of criticism. Kushner’s paintings are executed in a fluid, exaggerated cartoon-caricature style, concerned as they are with a similar contemporary mode of living. Same Outfit is biting commentary without being moralizing. Kushner obviously finds the vivid colors, the competitiveness, the idea of social error, the display and indulgence of the world he portrays quite worthy of his affection. And this is not to downplay the painting’s wit as a cliché involving serious issues of mass reproduction, uniqueness and self-identity.

Kushner is reviving figure painting—in Aida he joins rows of staggered Cleopatras with lady-bug bustiers and snake headdresses into a gigantic, complex interplay of visual and conceptual punning. The painting happily embraces Tut fever, a phenomenon shunned by the serious art world as the worst example of hype, popularization and commercialization of High Art sanctuaries; rebounds back to opera, that 19th-century white elephant which is mere millimeters away from Tut in its grandeur and camp appeal; and hits the mark with color—brown and black, serious colors dressed up in drag with gold glitter.

Which brings me smack up against the general strong dislike for Kushner’s work, its current unacceptability. His style, and thus his content, involves the issues of transvestitism, the blurring of male/female roles and customs, the breakdown of sexual barriers and boundaries; and this style is expressed through flamboyant excess and a content identified with interior design and decoration. In effect, Kushner revels in the camp, effeminate component of art in all of its fine and applied forms. Since American art has always rejected this “feminization,” associated with design, decoration, fashion, vulgarity, stylization, color, richness, with “French” or “Oriental” luxury, with decadence, it is hardly surprising that the display of these stereotypes, clichés and biases as something joyous and affirmative would find strong resistance from most quarters, even “liberal” or “radical” ones.

There is danger and risk here: even though Kushner’s is some of the least defensive art I’ve seen, it can still expose the source of critical defense mechanisms which separate our sexual natures from our experience of art, something built into the “professional,” objective, accepted standards of art writing itself. We have learned to handle Duchampian androgyny as intellectual charade, but what to do when Kushner’s art offers up sexual ambiguity as stinging praxis?

Ronald J. Onorato