New York

“Critical Perspectives”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

This exhibition had a lot of élan. The question is what existed beyond the exciting novelty of it all, beyond the aura of “hot flow” Edit deAk wrote of in her curatorial essay. Eight critics wrote such essays, making claims for the works they chose: do the works live up to the claims? We have Linda Burn-ham’s California art of “self-indulgence,” Ronny Cohen’s “Energism,” Edit deAk’s charisma room, John Howell’s artists who use “visual art forms [to] reflect and expand upon their individual performance activities,” Thomas Lawson’s muffled melodramas, Joseph Masheck’s neo-formalism, Peter Plagens’ revivalist abstraction, and Marcia Tucker’s violence room. There is a good deal of unwitting nostalgia in these selections, and a confirmation—with the limited exceptions of Masheck’s and to a lesser extent Plagens’ sections—of the new mindlessness in art, in rebellion against the intellectuality of the once-dominant Minimalist/Conceptual constellation. Within the new territory of Energism, charisma, and psychodrama, the question is which critic is on the frontier.

For me, Lawson and deAk reveal the new frontiers. Cohen’s Energism. already has a dated look, the inevitable result of a revisionism which deals with such overfamiliar matters as, in Cohen’s words, “the relationships between mediums,” “instantaneous seeing and knowing,” and “the wealth of information now available about art.” Neo-instinctiveness—Cohen’s “active, aggressive, outer-directed, emphatically visual” attitude—does not wear well. The unmediated—the immediate—has a way of falling flat these days, for we recognize it to be premeditated. It is another historicist strategy. “The wealth of information now available about art” makes us self-conscious about instantaneousness; it involves us in an infinite regress to a past impulsiveness, a traditional primitivism. Nancy Arlen’s pretzel-like Auras and Lynda Benglis’ puddle-like Acquanots are lovely to look at, but they are hardly “aggressive.” The same can be said for Suzan Pitt’s Judy Pfaff-y Untitled Constructed Painting and Peggy Cyphers’ asphalt-and-fluorescent Hellfire (hardly that), which are materially intriguing but display an energy that dissipates almost on appearance. The same cannot be said of Jeff Way’s Elvis, I Was The One, but that is because its energy is borrowed from popular sources. Way vividly paints a famous photograph, treating the original image like a dying yet still strong echo.

In general, the Energist works don’t live up to the claims made for them by Cohen. As broadly conceived as Energism is, it can’t stretch its terms to encompass such divergent (in energy as well as style) works as Kathryn Kennedy’s vivacious Count Your Blessings and Robin Tewes’ tepid, realistic Wading. Energism has the air of a manufactured movement; Cohen’s talk of “the rich diversity of individual expression”—many of the critics sounded this evasive note (a relic of the pluralism most disclaim)—arouses rather than alleviates my suspicions. Cohen understands all too well how textbook art history works: name a movement (thereby gaining instant credibility as a critic), and watch the conceptual fallout from the name cover a variety of artists.

Energism’s straining after intensity forces effect beyond what the structure of its works can sustain. Tucker’s choices do not suffer from this defect in quite the same way, particularly Kenneth Shorr’s expressionistic Altamira XX: A Moment Without End and Kent Shell’s three works, especially the two in black and white dealing with Antonin Artaud. Other works are in less expressionistic styles, particularly John Hull’s five ironically titled realist scenes of backwoods violence, and Kristin Hodson’s nine photographs of Secretary of State Alexander Haig posing with a visiting foreign dignitary. All the works deal with the topical theme of violence, more precisely of power. Some are searing, some are quietly ironical; all mean to be trenchant. Yet as a whole they convey a sense of beating a dead horse, in their mood of impotent rage as well as stylistically. They all raise the pressing point of art’s critical impact, its capacity to participate in social change by arousing conscience; but none have critical mass as art. Kevin Teare’s paintings seem most typical in this, their slurring of visual syntax masked by their mimesis of camouflage. I don’t see why art that is, in Tucker’s words, “committed, passionate, responsive, and undistanced” should be accepted despite its indifference to “questions of style, judgments of ‘quality.’ ” For too long it has been thought that such deliberate indifference guarantees “urgency” and is the sign of authenticity and vision. Like energy, urgency has a way of palling when it has nothing to back it up and is there for its own sake.

Masheck’s choices speak a proper art language, but they do not always seem to say anything. Masheck seems intuitively to believe that style is the crucial art statement; in pursuit of a postformalist criticism, he wants it to carry “higher meanings Although early abstraction was undoubtedly a moral reaction to worldly conditions—at least in part—I find Masheck’s assertion that his choices show a ”moral commitment to the humane, affirmative, even generous possibilities of abstract painting“ obscure It is worth noting that Cohen thinks her Energism ”celebrates. . . [the] humanistic spirit of American art in the 1980s.“ Can Masheck’s neo formalism, Cohen’s Energism, and Tucker’s political art all have the same quality of ”human engagement“? Masheck’s choices are well-mannered without being ingratiating, and pursue with new means the old Greenbergian surface that ”breathes,“ but what it means to say that they articulate ”beauty torn free of pandering and exploitation" is unclear without comparisons (are other names in the exhibition implicitly referred to?). Where Tucker’s choices fall short of vision by being overloaded on the side of social statement, Masheck’s fall short by being overloaded on the side of style. Why must overstatement in one area be compensated by understatement in another? Not that Masheck’s choices aren’t superb—Sharon Gold’s I Kant Stand It, Stop Hegeling and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s Dutchman are vitally elegant—but they fall short of being convincing in the terms Masheck wants to dress them in. Masheck showed us formalism in search of a grand manner. The psychoanalysts tell us grandiosity is a symptom of paranoia—is such self-apotheosis the beginning of the end?

Burnham’s room had a funk rather than punk aura, and was continuous with earlier California funk. Jeffrey Vallance’s Urban Guerilla by Chris Burden, fixed up by Jeffrey Vallance and Michael Uhlenkott reminded me of Bruce Conner’s Medusa, 1960 (both are busts), equally as comic and macabre. Vallance’s Herman Has Herpes series is also rooted in a quasi-counter-culture populism; it belongs to the witty California collage genre, as do Edie Ellis’ various body-part-shaped books, with their lovely colored pages and perverse or nasty typed remarks. I am less enthusiastic about Marc Kreisel’s pieces, although I like the cutout of the Japanese-science-fiction-film “robot/angel.” These works show an anthropological sensibility, treating every image as an instant artifact—a quality they share with Lawson’s and deAk’s choices, though they show a more traditional sense of images that are collectibles. Burnham offers her selections as examples of “the artist’s vision of self” and as an alternative to “the tyranny of political art,” but the ideology of self her artists offer is burdened with an obsolete sense of individuality.

Plagens, characterized in Lawson’s essay as a “dedicated provincialist,” offered us art that may be “rigorous” by provincial standards, but has none of the emotional rigor we find in Lawson’s and deAk’s urban selections. Lawson and deAk want an art that means to harrow us (even if it doesn’t always do so); Plagens gives us an art that lives up to old ideas of artistic standards, just as Lawson’s other provincials, Burnham and Tucker, give us art that lives up to old ideas of emotional standards. The provincials have to keep standards up; they don’t dare explore for new standards, new vision. Thus Plagens tells us that Ron Linden “distills a library of existential notations,” and John Phillips “puts the satellites of De Stijl into orbit,” which indicates a revivalist approach. As is customary in such cases, the results are more charming than powerful. Howell’s choices also have a certain limp charm. His artists seemed hardly convincing offstage, although Ericka Beckman’s untitled color photographs and Michael McClard’s Mise en Scene (circa 1500) do have a certain stagey presence. The problem is the independent carrying power of these pieces; there’s hardly any. For me, they do not raise critical issues, and are not even entertaining in the exploitive sense.

Thomas Lawson’s “little fiction [friction?] . . . in which Masheck is seen as presenting the academic, New York School position, to which the others reply,” is a useful orientation, despite Lawson’s disclaimer that he presents “simply a group of paintings [he] wanted to see together.” Lawson gives us a clue to where he is at by his characterization of himself, Cohen, deAk, and Howell as “urban rejectionists.” I assume this means that they leave the sacred temple of academic art for an art of profane experience. Lawson succeeded, I think more than the others, in mapping the attitudinal frontiers of such an art today, if still leaving us with a sense that it is a terra incognita which remains to be explored—however evolved from Pop art it may be. His room has the look of a dead-letter office, or a photograph archive whose contents have been randomly pulled and retouched. He selects works that use a totally public style (which has nothing to do with realism) to achieve an emotional effect. Lawson wants to deal with a dangerous content; his own painting of a child Battered to Death indicates this, as does his choice of Eric Fischl’s Father and Son Sleeping. Homage to Paul Bowles/Pages from Cold Past. But the work is not always as inwardly intense, as full of premonition, as seems intended. All too often, content becomes overwhelmed by its own publicness, by the fact that it is overmediated, as in Walter Robinson’s three Hollywood paintings. The same emotional numbing or draining, because of predictability, occurs in Jack Goldstein’s three untitled panels of light, and in Salomé’s Nina; even the “corrosions” of Michael Zwack’s (Caravaggesque?) head, Nachume Miller’s Three Studies for Skin Surface, and Gerry Morehead’s That’s the Danger suffer from this difficulty. They regress to their public sources—stylistic in the last three cases, although more generally thematic. Lawson’s choices utilize the sedimented sense of publicness available in “social types.” But the types themselves have to be expressively mediated, artistically subsumed. They do not always dialectically resurrect themselves in this art, although it often manages to convince us that they are inwardly mediated.

Edit deAk poses another problem with her presentation of a “magma of art” issuing from a “crazed freedom,” the “idiosyncratic, rather than universalist statement” of “new wave art.” She selects club- rather than gallery-based artists, rock ’n’ roll as well as “straight” visual performers. Their work is less a document than a residue of participatory performance, highly artifactual and itself performative, i.e., a behavioral command. The results are often pungent. Alan Vega’s two Viet Vets—electronic crosses of debris—and Yoko Ono’s various artifacts have a distinct Surrealist flavor, epitomized by her Wish Piece (a glass doorknob on red velvet in a reliquarylike glass case), which could easily hold its own in an exhibition of Surrealist poetic objects. The graffiti art of Futura 2000 (a world map emerging from a splash) and James Nares (a red X) has a decidedly Dadaist edge—another sprint toward the abyss of nihilism, pulling back to art at the last possible moment. If this mutating Surrealism/Dadaism is on a frontier, then it’s an old one, with evolutionary vitality; deAk is on the one vital frontier of the past (formalism seems to have a less intense dialectical relationship with itself), while Lawson is on the way to defining the frontier of the future. If, despite the charismatic effectiveness of deAk’s choices, there is something all too familiar about them (Lawson’s artists must deal with the same problem), their familiarity suggests what Max Weber called the routinization of charisma. DeAk and Lawson are struggling with the validity of charisma in a world of routine, in a world in which charisma itself has become a convention. This is the psychosocial as well as artistic issue of the day.

If we look at the exhibition as a whole, there are no winners. Underneath the exuberance, one must distinguish between old settlements (Burnham, Howell, Masheck, Plagens, Tucker) and new frontiers (Cohen, deAk, Lawson), even if some of the new frontiers are in danger of becoming suburban and some of the provincial settlements have an urban flair. I personally am sympathetic to Lawson’s muted appeal to Melpomene, and less temperamentally in tune with deAk’s language of hype, however pointed the art it dramatizes in fact is. But I respect the fact that they both present an art that is not comfortable with itself—it is being comfortable that makes one passé—and so can be exploratory and heuristic. I see Burnham’s artists as all too comfortable in their self-indulgence, Cohen’s Energism as on the way to complacency, deAk’s artists as full of savage dissatisfaction not unrelated to past modes of dealing with frustration, Howell’s performers as self-satisfied, and Lawson’s artists as full of muted dissatisfaction and in search of inner purpose (there’s lots of outer purpose in deAk’s choices). Masheck’s artists are the finicky princesses of an unpretentious abstraction, who choose to sleep on the pea to feel uncomfortable and committed; Plagens’ artists offer us a muscle-building but finally comfortable abstraction, and Tucker’s artists use comfortable modes to express social discomfort. The exhibition is a grand panoramic display of old actualities and new possibilities of art—of old nonconformities that have become conformist and art that has a conformist look struggling toward dealing with nonconformity. One is never far from the other.

Donald Kuspit