“Back to the USA”

Wolfgang Max Faust

This show, curated by Klaus Honnef, was intended as a corrective of the current view of art, as a straightening out of standards. Its departure point was the recognition that since the end of the ’70s discussion of art has focused mainly on Europe. The “new painting,” notably in Italy and West Germany but also in Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and France, has concentrated attention on formulations that connect up with specifically European traditions while also breaking with them, melding the most varied pictorial conventions. The attention garnered by this new art has been phenomenal—even in New York—and consequently American art has suffered, internationally speaking at any rate. Apart from the work of a few “stars,” it has only barely been competitive with the European successes.

The aim of “Back to the USA” was to demonstrate that this focus is distorted and to recreate a sense of the importance of American art. Thus a panorama of over 100 works by nearly 50 artists was presented; unfortunately, these high numbers seemed to have replaced esthetic judgments as criteria of selection. However, for those European viewers who dealt successfully with the edge of tension implicit for them in the show’s argument, a good opportunity was provided to examine the trends of the last decade in American art.

The show was divided into categories—“Pattern & Decoration,” “New Image,” “New Wave,” “New Expressionism,” “Graffiti.” The huge display of Pattern & Decoration, a mode which Honnef praises as innovative and a high point of esthetic awareness in American artists, boomeranged; anyone who still doubted that the American fascination with the surface turned to color-happy superficiality with this school might have been convinced by “Back to the USA.” Just as Pattern & Decoration suffers from continuity with the decorative, the concept of “New Expressionism,” an unhappy label blindly adopted by Honnef, suffers from continuity with “expression.” Outmoded psychology—a naive belief in art as narrative, as historical recapitulation—comes into play, and equally fatal is the unmodulated tapping of the tradition of Expressionist art without reevaluation or question. The exhibition did confirm what one already strongly suspected, that Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Susan Rothenberg, as well as Jedd Garet and Lois Lane, make magnificent paintings. It is to be lamented that this confirmation occurred only by the way. A feeling of haste and restlessness pervaded the show, overwhelming some provocative work with which one would have liked to linger. This feeling may actually correspond to the current search for self in America.

If the canvases of such American painters as Schnabel can easily be discussed from a European perspective, graffiti work represents a truer vein of “Back to the USA” sentiment. Not for the first time, a popular esthetic is transformed into “art” through the regenerative energy of a subculture. The result is a quite localized style with almost folkloric traits, but also a new form combining industry, art, and sign language. Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat represent one pole of the graffiti spectrum, Kenny Scharf and Lee Quinones the other. It remains to be seen what the ultimate goal of these transformations will be—discovery, regeneration, expansion, or exploitation, domestication, cliché. The hectic activity currently surrounding graffiti is entirely ambivalent. The American yearning to publicize, to reach the universal audience, is here dealing with the integrity of a preexistent esthetic. This is why, despite the colorful brilliance of graffiti paintings, the question arises as to whether we might live without them.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.