New York

William Anastasi

It’s too simple to think of William Anastasi as a Conceptualist or a Minimalist, as is usually done. Think of him rather as the Buster Keaton of “post-art” (to use Kaprow’s term); that is, a deadpan master of the indifferent, not exactly ironic à la Duchamp, not exactly interested in the merely interesting. Instead, Anastasi presents himself as the tongue-in-cheek witness to the banality that avant-garde art has become by reason of its built-in obsolescence—an entropic necessity if it is to “advance,” to produce, in other words, ever newer products to satisfy the needs of capitalism, eventually becoming part of the “culture industry,” busily producing opium for the masses.

Anastasi knows that found-object art is a sort of cheap intellectual opium, that Minimalism is even more mindless and facile, and, more grandly, that avant-garde art as such is a pretentiously unintelligible farce. He repeatedly bounces off the work of trendy avant-gardists, whether in homage or satirically is unclear, just as it is unclear whether Keaton, in one film, as he stands stiffly at attention as his rowboat sinks, is petrified by the prospect of death or wryly resigning himself to its dumb inevitability.

Among the works in this miniretrospective, Sound Object (Fan), 1964/2008, acknowledges the dumb brilliance and triviality of Duchamp’s “readymades”; the aluminum piece Untitled, 1965, is a trivializing riff on Serra’s early “leaning” metal plate pieces; and AGHTAK, 1987 (the title of which is a fragment of the hundred-letter word James Joyce invented in Finnegans Wake as the “sound” of catastrophe) mocks the writer’s incoherence even as it celebrates his cleverness. In all cases, what was once provocative and enigmatic has become matter-of-fact, meaningless, and old hat. Most delightfully, Sink, 1963/1991, recalls Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings,” in which he pissed on metal to make a murky “expressionistic” point. Clearly there are no sacred cows in Anastasi’s pantheon. His pantheon is a morgue.

Anastasi has a sense of ill humor, of the far-fetched, of the absurdity of it all—the characteristics of the avant-garde mentality. But he thinks that mentality is silly and vainglorious, as his quotation of Molière in the catalogue of a 2007 exhibition indicates: “One should curb the heady inclination / To publicize one’s little avocation / . . . showing off one’s works of art / One often plays a very clownish part.” Is Anastasi playing the clown to the King Lears of art, or is he saying that they’re just clowning around? He prefaces a 1991 exhibition with Alfred Jarry’s suggestion that art is a “disembraining machine.” “I want to kill art,” Duchamp says in another quotation, and Anastasi displays the corpse, in various stages of decay.

One might say that Anastasi stamps this nihilism with the imprimatur of his own nihilism, a point hammered home by perhaps the two most critically provocative works exhibited here: Delay, 1989, a photograph of the decayed image of Christ in Leonardo’s Last Supper, his figure stamped in paint with the word JEW; and Breath, also 1989, a graphite and acrylic field with the word JEW in the upper right quadrant. That word is not as vacuous as the jokes that Richard Prince prints on some of his dull paintings, nor as emptied of meaning as the words Kosuth elevates as though they were Art-God given.

Jew is our most charged word,” Anastasi wrote in 1987, arguing that blind “prejudice, the purest mirroring of self-loathing, [is] both the engine and fuel” driving our values, that we not only all have our subconscious prejudices but that subconsciously “we are all Jews.” It is the social importance of this idea that saves Anastasi’s work from being yet more mischievous Conceptual art, even as he makes it clear that avant-garde art is prejudiced against art. Are the avant-garde artists he alludes to full of self-loathing? Do they loathe art, and is that why they make anti-art?

Donald Kuspit