Terry Atkinson

“‘No poetry after Auschwitz and Hiroshima,’ Adorno is reputed to have written! Who is he trying to kid? The statement itself is poetic.” So writes Terry Atkinson in a short essay justifying his continued interest in historical and political representation and Modernism. But Atkinson’s sense of the quote is slightly askew. Theodor Adorno did not mean that poetry could not or should not exist but that poetry could no longer be thought of as a humanizing force. As far as Adorno is concerned, the concept of civilization embodied in the Enlightenment ideal of Reason ended definitively one day in August, 1945.

As bleak as that sounds, this terminus is, nevertheless a beginning for all of us of the post–World War II generation. Atkinson places a decal—at times so miniscule it is barely visible—of Enola Gay against a lurid monochrome and calls these pictures “Mutes” as if to needle us about our expectations of the “voice” of art. The decal leads us to a politico-esthetic décalescence: the acidic monochrome becomes a symbol for the confluence of poetry, the potential humanizing force of esthetic purity, and the most horrific acts of unbridled instrumental Reason.

In Atkinson’s conceptualization of Civilization Lost, a profound metaphysical mistrust of Reason is revealed which manifests itself as a critique of the certainty of “grammars.” Bracketed by the problematics of painting in the shadow of 1945, Atkinson tackles the possibility of engagement between various communities of language-users: the artist(s) and her multiplicitous audiences. Paradoxically, this is also the point where he diverges from Adorno’s well-worn conclusion about art’s role in capitalist society, in works that literally careen between material instability and uncertainty.

Some of the artist’s most recent works deal with the signature as factura. They are “a kind of history painting,” writes Atkinson, “which deals with the history of one kind of modern painting, one genre: the monochrome. . .” By selecting and transforming the classical genre of heroic history painting, Atkinson is able to make pictures out of the social and political ruin of the “signature” in opposition to Adorno, who implies that “agency” has been vaporized. The pictures are “made” when Atkinson’s signature is intagliated through the corrosive action of solvents on the ground of polystyrene panels painted in high-keyed colors. Atkinson’s signature is itself a complex masque comprised of aliases such as “Terry Actor,” “Terry Enola,” “Terry Gay.” While the horribly disfigured signature now looks like a crater, hardly recognizable as consciously determined factura, it is a plausible picture of a necrotic wound. In Atkinson’s hands the signature and other weighty indices of personhood and history are rendered feckless. These traces become something like an archaeology of historical agency; symbolic of history and historical memory’s hold on us. Atkinson-the-materialist emphasizes, explains, and burlesques the artist-as-agent, while holding out for an updated version of art-as-agency, in all its futility, instability, and seriousness.

That orientation towards production, reception, and history is crucial to an understanding of Atkinson’s “Greasers” and “Ruses.” Profoundly ungainly, ugly, and gross, they exemplify Atkinson’s own invention, the abstract history painting. Produced over a period of several years, beginning in 1987, “Greaser” is a series of fairly formulaic works made of heroically proportioned wooden structures that refer to Courbet, the history painter, as well as Frank Stella, the antihistorical Formalist. In one sense, the sole purpose of these works is to “house” grease: thick, brown-black, automotive axle grease that has a tendency to migrate and contaminate everything in its wake. Atkinson gleefully displaces the formalist’s strategy of mise-en-abîme with the incoherence and sheer incompatibility of bizarre materials and forms. The result has been called “the emblematic stutter” and it aptly describes our reaction to the nearly futile attempt of wood, metal, and Formica to contain grease.

These works take us back beyond the spirit of Atkinson’s initial reflection on Adorno’s reflection on the shitted world of petty-bourgeois morality, propriety, and Art, to T. J. Clark’s thesis that there exists in the petty-bourgeois experience of Art a fleeting moment when Art’s meaning, like grease, is neither here nor there.

Michael Corris