San Francisco

“Second Sight”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The theme designed to hold together the variety of paintings and sculptures in this biennial show was both tenuous and ambivalent. Loosely paraphrased, the curator Graham Beal’s catalogue essay’s main argument ran like so: that where Modern art “on the whole” denied the past, a sign of the present rage for content is to be found in newer artists’ espousals of antique styles and/or subjects as “aids to meaning.” Ideally, a theme show should gather force and add to the effects of individual works. This one fizzled and subtracted and left one with a feeling of greater vacancy in the departments it claimed most to address. With its allusions to a “more serious concern with meaning” and the expression of “humanist ideals and issues,” the accompanying literature posited an inclusivity, a scope, which few of the artists on hand tried to deliver. To do so, they would have had to surmount both irony and nostalgia. The slurred conception made most of them appear just adequate and only a very few better than that. If anything was revealed by the show itself, it was the general ease with which these artists settle on both irony and nostalgia, and more especially the latter.

The “Second Sight” artists were Hermann Albert, Edward Allington, Siah Armajani, Roger Brown, Harry Fritzius, Douglas Higgins, David Hollowell, Komar and Melamid, Christopher Le Brun, Carlo Maria Mariani, Ann McCoy, Stephen McKenna, Odd Nerdrum, Giulio Paolini, Earl Staley, M. Louise Stanley, Pat Steir, Michelle Stuart, and Mark Tansey. The group was fairly divided between nostalgia for content and nostalgia of style. Komar and Melamid parody nostalgia, while McCoy parades it—in terms of an unambiguous meaning system—by the numbers. Like McCoy, Stuart presumes upon meanings in nature by invoking cultural precedents. The precedents don’t aid, but are, the meaning. Both Brown and Albert gloss over creaking archaic stage machineries with bright midstream-Modern styles. A kind of Promethean nostalgia is explicit in Fritzius: he tries to steal two divine fires at once—the steady blaze of old masters and the acetylene flicker of Action Painting—and ends up with smoldering remnants of the two together.

Nostalgia can often be identified as a confusion of tradition and anachronism. The meaning of an anachronism lies in the gap between at least two connotations, stylistic or otherwise, and the rupture of temporal meanings releases a silliness. Shrewd deployments of multiple ruptures make Tansey’s art jokes funny (The Key, 1984, is his funniest, because least circumstantial, picture). Silly ideas of tradition in the classicizing paintings of Staley, Stanley, and McKenna make for kinds of pictorial doggerel. Paolini’s window-dressing reprise of the bloody episode of Nessus and Deianira demonstrates to what remote corners such classical verities have been consigned. He shares with Mariani a laundered classicism. As Carter Ratcliff has observed, “Mariani’s figures all hold their breath”; they are idle stylistic precedents waiting for a meaning to nudge them into gear.

Nerdrum, Hollowell, and Staley all practice what used to be called “symbolic” realism. Predicated on tight rendering and coruscating figure arrangements, it’s an intriguing conservative genre that never quite went away. Staley’s version recalls the typical 1930s American regionalist offshoot, while Hollowell’s floats on an urbane finesse. Nerdrum brings to his curved horizons and eerie lusters the show’s greatest conviction and an uncanny (if sometimes stultifying) balance. Of all the painters, Nerdrum shows the clearest preference for how a painting ought to be. Steir’s paintings exist passionately as a force with natural human implications, though lately she leaves the “how” of it to wander in the maelstrom of her mimicry mix.

Modern artists never stopped using what they could of the past. The Futurist moratorium on traditional usage was superseded by any number of calls to order and impervious continuities. History outlives the chronology invented for it. For an artist, it is an exposed field or matrix, not a forced march. Unlike artists, our critics and curators tend to thrive on short memories. Terrific memory lapses fuel the cottage industry of “Modern”/“post-Modern” thesis-making and rinse the long-term, standard range of accessible styles and meanings in nonsensical light. The most telling quality of the present show was its superficial look of latter-day ’20s/’30s Art Deco dislocation—not surprising in view of the classicist yearnings and otherwise flailing pluralism of those decades. The proof of “Second Sight” was no clairvoyance but a normal circumspection: as they say on the street, “Goes around, comes around.”

Bill Berkson