New York

Andy Warhol, Charles Luce, Meredith Monk

Whitney Museum of American Art/Elise Meyer Gallery/La Mama

There are two possible reviews of WARHOL’s portraits. This is the first: Warhol is a satirist attempting to purge the United States by means of a critique of the forces which both sustain it and bring it low. The ’70s portraits allow him to examine interconnections between money, power and fame. Sitters are shown in their worst possible light. Much of the interest lies in the extent to which the artist supports or opposes their own ideas of themselves.

This is the second, represented by Robert Rosenblum in his catalogue essay: In making an equivalent to 19th century society painting Warhol has brought the here-and-now back into art and has revived the manner of Boldini, Sargent and Jacques-Emile Blanche. Employing photographs means accepting the inaccessibility of the famous, retouching the real. Yet Warhol’s insight is startling; Henry Geldzahler with “his cigar and elusive gaze poised forever for public view,” Leo Castelli “at his dapper and urbane best,” David Hockney “with that beguiling shock of blond hair above a lovably callow face” . . . .You get the idea.

Mutually exclusive though they seem, both interpretations are demanded simultaneously by the portraits; their power to damage depends on the extent to which they are prepared to abuse that humanist, life-enhancing, fence-sitting moral ambiguity expected of “great art.” Style and subject matter are carefully defined. With few exceptions the sitters are “Beautiful People.” Within his limits, Warhol is free to exercise a variety of options; while the portrait of Dennis Hopper is an approving, muted idyll reminiscent of Lonesome Cowboys, the portrait of Truman Capote could scarcely be considered flattering. Yet if Warhol’s method of printing under and over wodges of creamy paint is a technique of qualification, it is also a fashionable imprimatur. Whatever “truth” emerges is the product of a set of compromises in which “image,” fact and style vie with each other for priority. The main stylistic factors are pose, cropping, color, uniformity, and the “elegant variation” of the structure. Each can be revealing. Cropping makes Helene Rochas float like a water-lily. Sprocket-holes turn John Richardson into a shot from a pornographic movie. Victor Hugo adopts a classic pin-up pose, whereas Paul Jenkins appears to be auditioning for the part of Moses in the next remake of The Ten Commandments. Uniformity of size makes subjects resemble better-known “stars”—Erich Marx a bad-tempered Bing Crosby, Michael Heizer an embarrassed Jack Benny, and Irving Blum a vexed Dean Martin. Backgrounds are indiscriminate. The surface “painting” consists of Warhol playing around like a drunken cosmetician, conjuring Expressionist effects around Halston’s head and hands, or painting de Kooningesque brushstrokes behind Giovanni Agnelli’s back. These are all exceptional cases. More frequently “style” consists of the passive repetition of a set of classic Warhol maneuvers, updated with fashionable color. “Style” takes a rest while tokens of fashionable acceptance—the mere fact of being there at all—takes over. And for “fashion” read “money”? Not quite. A certain self-image must also be present. The best argument in favor of the current Warhol painting technique would be that indeed it is a device for preparing specimens before placing them under the microscope. If this is the intention, the result is far from convincing.

Compared with the “off day” quality of the society portraits and the sheer poverty of invention of the Ladies and Gentlemen and the Muhammed Ali and Jimmy Carter prints, the “Mao” studies are vintage Warhol, extraordinarily daring attempts to celebrate a subject with whom there is no complicity. By attempting various approaches, Warhol empathizes with a hero who forbade the proliferation of his own image, and, more significantly, achieves some understanding of an alien concept of heroism. Does his success with Mao and the comparative dullness of the society portraits indicate that he should desert his fashionable nonentities and return to the convicts, hammers and sickles and electric chairs? All may not be lost. Political artists can be representative instead of prescriptive. Intention aside, the society faces criticize American democracy. And for those who care to look, they point to areas it is politer to ignore. Let it go. Perhaps Warhol knows best after all.

The works in CHARLES LUCE’s “Etymological Lessons” series consist of stories, objects and drawings incorporating diagrams and information, some of which include instructions for activities to be performed by one, two or three people. In addition, the artist himself stages simple demonstrations of commonplace gestures or the properties of materials in order to illustrate the attitude of mind his work requires. What at first seems hermetic fantasy serves a gently didactic purpose; they can be considered as functional objects from which information will continue to derive. In a sense, the “etymological lessons” themselves are both the inspiration for the pieces and the conclusions derived from them. They are what Luce calls “light truths,” putative, undogmatic statements about details of life. Appreciation of the precise is crucial; in the past Luce has performed in front of his work, imitating the gestures of a Kabuki actor. One factor which unites the various components of his work is their appeal to a higher ritual, the feeling that they can be used in a private structure resembling a Japanese tea ceremony.

Luce’s orientalism runs deep; it is a signal of tone and intent. Yet on a superficial level it is kept as a deliberately whimsical and contradictory “style,” a way of distancing both artist and viewer. Luce, who knows no Chinese, picks two numbered characters from a textbook. Though the choice is “random” it is determined by charts or templates. But these are based on accident. The breaking of a plate, for example, yields a chart derived from the sorting of china fragments according to size. He then subjects the arbitrary information to a process of lengthy metamorphosis which he has called “curious and frightening.” Paradoxically, as it moves out of his reach, he attends to its changes and gathers it to him once more by devising reasoned connections for the previously nonexistent relations between the “meanings” of the two randomly chosen characters. The fiction created to bring this about is included in the drawing for the work, and three-dimensional elements could be regarded as “props” for this verbal justification.

The stories form episodes in the voyages of Luce’s “Doppelgänger” hero, The Navigator, who journeys alone without the aid of geography. His discoveries resemble totally new constellations or archaeological reconstructions. Whether they are very new or very old is unimportant; they are always mental configurations, the representation of taxonomic shifts. They exist in air, and our own relation to air—dependent on it but ignoring it, containing it yet contained in it—parallels the ambiguous position of Luce as the author of works which “create themselves.” Breath is an important recurring image in Luce; etymologically speaking, “inspiration” means letting the body be filled. Loss of self due to states of unconsciousness—fear, sleep, ecstasy, pain, anger—and the consequent alteration of perceptions of time also figure in Luce’s stories.

Luce’s creative process has similarities with Duchamp or Roussel, though his method of proceeding from rational to nonrational and back to rational has a clarity which must owe something to his scientific training. But what does it all add up to? Like Alice Aycock, Luce presents the spectator not with single works as much as with the spectacle of an artistic career as a perpetuum mobile machine, of abstract self-reflexivity as well as incident and entertainment. Choosing a single approach is just the wrong answer. For Luce, as for Duchamp, what something “means” is closely aligned with what it is and does. One main property of Luce’s objects is to move in time. To use one of his key words, they become “informed.” After his negotiations with a arbitrary mental construct, it has been validated, ransacked, pushed into three dimensions. It has turned into a logbook, a myth, a choreographic score. It contains pictographic languages and props for performances. It might have been broken by Luce himself, who also has a habit of giving parts away. He changes, we change, it changes. And the rates and rationale of the changes are offset by a baffling discontinuity of temporal coordinates within the work itself. One metaphor from the “Reconstruction of the Ether House” drawings sticks in the mind. “The collected panes of the Ether House are shattered again by the Navigator in order to release the songs.” For Luce a work of art serves to take him from place to place. One suspects that his ideal “work of art” is a sheet of music, a door or a can opener.

From the first moments of Recent Ruins, when six singers in formal dress apply their impressive technical skill to something like plainsong, the theme of sophistication versus primitivism is explicit: Recent Ruins is an experiment in pastoral. In an elaborate “worked example” in which paired figures in the costume of different historical periods work towards the same discovery, chalking and rechalking the floor as they search, a pair of contemporary archaeologists slowly grasp the truth that a life’s work may be devoted to documenting one part of a cheap souvenir or vacuum cleaner. Suddenly their labors are interrupted by the appearance of a small group of Ellis Island immigrants. A film is shown of a reconstruction of their lives; charades give way to more fragmented, oblique methods of perceiving their existence—their hospital treatment, food and living conditions are violently and unscientifically approximated. A lengthy set-piece concerning a tribe called the People in Yellow shows their customs and journeys, and as the viewer senses parallels with other, more recent “tribes,” he also feels he is near the heart of myth. Finally MONK conjures up a vision of a world beyond recorded time, a dark civilization which combines animal worship and odd, ritual play.

Recent Ruins is a chamber work in which limitations of space and form permit gentle stress on ironic repetition of faces, gestures, props and music. Monk’s medium is operatic, unified emotionally with music, visually by the action. Though highly organized, it allows for “interpolations” such as the sacred wrestling match between two women in section 111 or the powerful image of an “Earth Mother” throwing heavy pieces of timber from one end of the space to the other. Details gather strength; the sudden dashes from spot to spot to avoid the camera eye in the Ellis Island movie are a fixed part of the life of the People in Yellow. Sand falling from the roof marks the ends of sections and is dramatized at first, then gradually begins to take place in darkness, forgotten. What sticks in the mind is not the startling visual moments or the coups de théâtre—the immigrants having their eyeballs examined, the violent courtship games of the People in Yellow, the electronically powered white tortoises in the finale—but the gathering rhythms which bind the movements and correspond to a private, emotional dialogue with history.

Despite Monk’s statement that the work is “about the notion of archaeology as a way of seeing,” the discipline itself is little more than a focus for her rhapsody on the themes of knowledge and time and how they are perceived. Robert Lowell wrote that history was what “cannot be touched.” If “touch” implies measurement and location, Monk would agree; what is lost in daguerrotypes or reports of excavations is quite simply “life,” the hum of a Viennese ballroom, the chitchat of Regency bucks, what immigrants ate. Our daily lives are affected by tribes we have never heard of in places we may never know at periods before recorded time. Only song, dance, fighting and other social rituals can call them to mind. But they are not known; they are intuited. The very humor of reducing an intellectual discipline to an enactment of kindergarten activities, the possibility of giving “history” a peremptory summons by concocted pseudo-ritual, the inescapable fact that our conception of historical period is comically, pathetically limited by who and where and what we are is not simply asserted, but acted out. Pastoral is a form as old as civilization itself, perhaps. Monk’s contribution is a felt realization that art and archaeology may be more nearly aligned than we had ever suspected.

Stuart Morgan