New York

“Pre-Pop Post-Appropriation”

57 STUX + Haller Gallery

Any discussion of a group show curated by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo must be concerned primarily with the ideas they espouse and only secondarily with the various, often disparate artists they include. Collins and Milazzo’s catalogue essay for “Pre-Pop Post-Appropriation,” while predictably turgid in its prose, is nonetheless fairly straightforward in its drift: briefly, that the period between the close of Abstract Expressionism and the advent of Pop constituted a “breathless swing-moment of potential in History,” and that its discursive formations of “desire, the Body, the Human element, the personal, the elemental, Nature, immediacy, experience, actuality and Value” are now reinvoked and perhaps fulfilled by the postappropriationist strategies of the artists presented here—Robert Gober, Ross Bleckner, the Starn Twins, Annette Lemieux, Doug Anderson, Meg Webster, Holt Quentel, Suzan Etkin, David Carrino, Nancy Shaver, and Lawrence Carroll. Furthermore, this discourse stands in opposition to the processes of reification embedded in the denatured, picture-theory art of appropriation, and, implicitly, in that of its precursor movement, Pop. In addition to the aforementioned younger artists, Collins and Milazzo have included a handful of works, dating from the early ’60s through 1988, by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Salvatore Scarpitta. These artists are viewed as avatars of that “potential” inherent in the discourse of pre-Pop.

This approach, while novel, is highly problematic. Collins and Milazzo start by rejecting the processes of “historical reification” that are enforced by the conventional periodizations of art history. Yet they historicize wildly, characterizing pre-Pop, inexplicably, as “Middle Modernism.” At the same time, they do not reconcile influences historically, but rather almost quasi-religiously, rendering the pre-Pop artists the spiritual fathers of post-appropriation. By cannily framing their argument so as to proclaim another dubious avant-garde, while declaring it the fulfillment of a potential inherent in earlier movements, Collins and Milazzo seem to be engaging in figural interpretation, as defined by Erich Auerbach: “[establishing] a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.” In their schema, pre-Pop then, both prefigures and legitimizes postappropriation, just as the Old Testament prefigures and legitimizes the New.

Collins and Milazzo have consciously positioned their curatorial project in opposition to the discourses of appropriation and picture theory, protesting that the critique of reification has degenerated into the reification of critique. But it seems that “reification" functions as a kind of smokescreen in their texts for the troublesome issues raised by Collins and Milazzo’s own penchant for vaporous generalities and pseudo-Hegelian abstraction. Their complaint against reification becomes yet another instance of obtuse concretion, rather than free-flowing dialectic: the reification of “reification.” Can we uncritically accept virtually meaningless phrases such as “the Human element” and “the personal,” let alone such sociopolitically loaded terms as “desire,” “the Body,” “Nature,” and “Value?” Collins and Milazzo’s apparent faith in the mystifications of universality, immediacy, and transcendence, as well as their cavalier refashioning of history to serve their own program, ironically leads us back to the very questions about the nature of representation raised by picture theory. Ultimately, their inclusion of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Scarpitta functions not so much as historical argument than as pedigree. Likewise, the agenda of “Pre-Pop Post-Appropriation” is, finally, conservative in its implications, even reactionary.

David Rimanelli