New York

David Robbins

American Fine Arts

Theorists of art during the Italian Renaissance, the historical crux that still preconditions the study of art in the West, consistently propounded the Horatian ideal of ut pictura poesis—“pictures like poetry”—as a model for serious painting. The theoretical and historical import of this concept lay in its capacity to legitimize images by their relation to previous significant texts. While the pictorial tradition of the Italian Renaissance has withered in the era of Modernism, the Horatian ideal persists in various covert, often repressed, ways. Formalist and minimalist theories explicitly advocated art as a purely optical or materialist phenomenon, while at least implicitly reserving the role of hermeneutic legitimation for themselves. Other recent conceptualist movements have fore-grounded textual paradigms—whether analytic philosophy, Freudo-Marxism, or post-structuralism—as the very matter of art itself.

In a recent, ambitious essay entitled “Art After Entertainment,” David Robbins continues this tendency. Surely, the echo of Joseph Kosuth’s “Art After Philosophy” is deliberate. In the background of each essay lingers the Horatian ideal, and, as the word “after” implies, possibly its passing: “pictures like philosophy,” “pictures like entertainment.” The latter might as well read “pictures like pictures,” thus short-circuiting the Horatian model. Robbins’ very title suggests the impasse of Conceptualism in the media-made era, while his essay adheres to those functions of legitimation that the title nullifies. In it, he reflects on his aspirations for a work of his, Talent, 1986: “I hoped [it] would cause both avant-garde culture and entertainment culture to confess their habits of mind, framing the issue of criticality itself. It was my attempt to tip the critical and the non-critical into a perpetual motion of mutual critique, simultaneously indicting art’s naive, excessive criticality and entertainment’s smug, oafish complacency; art’s chronic marginality and entertainment’s brutish populism; art’s fierce autonomy and entertainment’s collaborative nature; art’s addiction to disposable theory and entertainment’s poverty of theory.” These are large hopes.

Robbins’ installation here, “A Foole Show,” represents the crystallization (if hardly the realization) of his ambitions. This motley collection of deadpan Cibachromes and ragtag assemblages alludes to the harlequin, the buffoon in commedia dell’arte. Robbins’ protagonist is disembodied and decomposed into the constituent elements of his costume, appearing as a patchwork denim-and-leather travel bag. This American harlequin, decked out in the stereotypical garb of bike boys, is a traveling man, a vaudevillian. He represents Robbins’ notion of the condition of the contemporary artist, a figure shuttling psychically between the mass-media fantasts of Hollywood and the critical and commercial myrmidons of New York. The artist-harlequin is an especially demoralized and marginalized antihero, relegated to pathetic blue-and-rose-period Picassoid poster kitsch or to the tacky clubs frequented by stand-up comics who sing for their supper.

David Rimanelli