Commentary Magazine


Graffiti & Other Art Forms

Since 1932, the Whitney Museum in New York has regularly staged exhibitions of the work of those American artists whom the curators have considered the best and the most representative of the moment. The format of this year’s Biennial Exhibition, which ran from March 13 to June 9, required “multiple examples,” usually two, of work done over the past two years by the invited artists. As for the criteria of selection, the curators wrote in this year’s catalogue that their objective was “twofold: to make qualitative judgments at a moment of multiple critical standards, and to assemble as cohesive an overview of current art activity as possible.” Since “ideological and stylistic variety characterizes recent art,” they continued, “no single aesthetic dominates this exhibition.” The great variety of media included painting, sculpture, photography, film, and video.

Despite the careful disclaimers, certain attitudes—one would hesitate to say they added up to a “single aesthetic”—did emerge from the show, which was perhaps more tendentious than any other in the history of the Whitney Annual and Biennial Exhibitions. But to appreciate these attitudes one needs first to have some sense of the show as a whole.

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In painting, the Whitney Biennial reflected the vogue now enjoyed by graffiti artists, whose works have soared overnight to a value about twice that of a used subway car, such as formerly they had adorned gratis. While the main result of this new fashion has been to make a few indigent souls rather more prosperous than they would ever have dreamed possible, in the work of at least one of them, Kenny Scharf, there is something of genuine appeal, and part of that even artistic.

One of the first paintings the viewer saw at the Biennial was Scharf’s enormous and variegated mural, When the Worlds Collide (the name is taken from an early 60’s science-fiction film). Though the subject matter was open to great latitudes of interpretation, it appeared that we had before us the landscape of some other planet, in the foreground of which, painted in a diabolical red, were two friendly biomorphic natives welcoming us aboard. In the corners were seen entanglements of helices, and rapidly vibrating spots which the viewer was probably to interpret as something vaguely nuclear. In addition there were mechanomorphic heads, and, amid comets and whirling tornadoes, the disembodied eye and eyebrow of what appeared to be a beauty of the early 60’s type. It was only natural that the more conscientious viewer—and the Biennial attracted many such—would read into this painting some stern portent of approaching nuclear holocaust, although it was also possible to perceive in it the traces of unqualified good humor.

In addition to graffiti art there was also evident at the Whitney the kind of abstraction that seemed ready at any moment to take the plunge and to commit itself to full-fledged “figuration,” as the curators put it. Of the five or so artists working in this mode, the most famous was Jedd Garet, whose contorted and vague forms have been seen in previous Biennial Exhibitions; even if his inclusion was justified in the past, however, this year’s offerings did not show the signs of growth and maturation that the curators were presumably seeking in those artists whom they invited back. Gregory Amenoff’s large, dense, Gothic landscapes managed to carry a certain conviction, though even in the evocation of their chosen mood one somehow felt they had not gone far enough. Much more appealing than this was a work by Doug Anderson entitled I Conquered Weakness by Giving Into It. Here a man fishing on an abbreviated jetty pulled up from the depths of the sea the skeleton of a fish, while in the background we saw a death’s head, a bull, and other fearsome things. Predictably, the work did not have anything in it that responded exactly to the title, but it did create a convincing sense of volume in space, and the suggestion of uneasiness and perturbation was successfully done.

Because the Whitney has been more concerned in the Biennials to bring to light new talent than to confirm established reputations, most of the artists represented were either little known or of comparatively recent celebrity. But the curators are also interested to a certain degree in keeping tabs on the more established artists, and so they included two works by Jasper Johns. These were not only among the best in the exhibition, but also among the best in his career. In one of them, done in encaustic on a canvas divided into halves, Johns created a majestic progression of three boxes placed at regular intervals and three more boxes irregularly spaced like paintings on a wall. These he filled with a series of loosely connected images: a death’s head, the well-known optical illusion of an old hag who turns into a beautiful young woman, and a group of terrifying and indeterminate figures, all of which, as they bounced off and responded to one another, created a rich, complex rhythm. Though his second work, Racing Thoughts, was a little less distinguished, the too simplistic halving of the composition was relieved by the sophistication of the colors.

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Several of the sculptors represented at this year’s Whitney exhibition showed a far greater interest in pure formalism of the older sort than was in evidence among the painters. One of these was Donald Judd, the only other artist comparable in reputation to Jasper Johns. In keeping with his minimalist heritage, and like a feeble magician stubbornly trying to pull a rabbit from an unyielding hat, Judd has continued to seek in his metal and plexiglas boxes an effect that either is not there or that is too subtle to be perceived. At the Whitney show he confirmed himself to be a one-idea man, which is particularly unfortunate when the idea was none too promising to begin with.

John Newman, however, managed to achieve far finer, if slightly more traditional, results in the area of purely formal sculpture. One came upon his work—elegant and at the same time almost tribal in its spiralings of threaded steel—as a breath of fresh air, for here finally was someone who remembered how to create formal beauty without the buttressing of a specious intellectualism, which was the besetting sin of most of the other works on display.

Other surprises in sculpture were Robert Hudson’s Posing the Question—a brightly colored, semi-abstract affair of steel pipes that suggested a man engaged in thought of a highly speculative nature—and two sculptures by Jo Anne Carson. Miss Carson’s work was a curious example of three-dimensional cubism, though here the forms were much more clearly legible than those of the analytic period of Picasso to which they referred. But the principal virtue of her two works lay in the facility with which they created a sense of inexhaustible activity.

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In the area of photography, curiously, there was not a single straightforward example of that art to be found at the Whitney. Most of the works of photography on display were to some extent “created” in the lab. Moreover, from a formal point of view even the best photographs were almost completely uninteresting; only when they were seen from a specific conceptual or emotional angle did they occasionally take on a certain beauty.

The works of Cindy Sherman, one of the darlings of the art market, were a good example of this, being large, rather banally colored, and often not quite in focus. Her talent can be understood only if one has seen more of her work than was on display here. Each of her photographs is to be viewed as if it were a still from an imaginary film, for which our own familiarity with the movies is supposed to provide the context. Only then can we appreciate that what she is practicing is less the art of photography than the art of performance, impersonation and high camp distilled through the photographic medium.

Joel Peter Witkin, another photographer represented at the Biennial, has made use of the archaic gelatin silver print to simulate Victorian photography of the sort that once delighted viewers with the new invention’s ability to capture minute details. Surprising though it may sound, 19th-century photography tended to be much more finely and richly detailed than most of what is done today; and so under closer inspection these works by Witkin fell short, on the basis of sheer technical competence, of their Victorian prototypes. What they did well, however, was to parody that older society while remaining, in their surrealist strangeness, entirely modern. Like so much of the art in the Whitney Biennial, these works defeat description, but the reader may form some sense of their bizarreness when he learns that one of them depicted a four-armed naked man holding in his hand a pig’s hoof, while in another a naked and obese woman, with the irradiating strands of her hair tacked onto the wall behind her, cradled in her arms what appeared to be the fetus of a horse, with a nearby monkey skeleton thrown in for good measure.

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As in previous Biennial Exhibitions, the curators showed no stinginess this year in catering to environment and installation artists. Of these the best was, again, Kenny Scharf. His was a mixed-media installation titled Closet #7, occupying a sequestered hallway and the bathrooms and telephone booths of the museum’s second floor. Its motifs bore a close resemblance to his paintings. The floor was paved in a durable silver paper, which, under gaudy ultraviolet lights and blaring teeny-bopper music, gave off a heady, feverish effect. One could be sufficiently taken with the work to conclude that it was not merely the incorporation of the bathrooms that accounted for the excited rush of people toward it. When I opened one of the doors, I was surprised to find that it was indeed a bathroom, and that it was still serving its original function—lighted, however, with a violet bulb, and sprayed all over with bright day-glow colors in such a way as to recall weekends in college dormitories.

Much less engaging was the work of a group of four artists who go by the name TODT (which is also the name of the SS general who served as Hitler’s Minister for Armaments). This too was a multimedia piece, all the motifs of which were taken from everyday consumer items, neon lights, hamster-cage contraptions, and other things which neither merit nor lend themselves to summary, but which in their vague way aspired to say something morosely important about the human condition. The fact is that the formal configurations were wholly lacking in what used to be called aesthetic validity, and the “message” consisted of little more than a cashing-in on most viewers’ willingness to read into things.

A similar “aesthetic” dominated a final installation work, also designed by four young artists in collaboration, which comprised not only items of the consumer culture but also work by other artists, some well-known and some even represented with their own pieces elsewhere in the exhibition. The title of the work was Americana. As one entered the largish room devoted to it on the ground floor, the first thing one heard was jazz in the background and the first thing one saw was a washer and dryer in the middle of the room and soon, to one side, a classic suburban television set decked out in imposing oak, atop which was set a recent issue of TV Guide. Tacked onto the walls was to be found a selection of the more popular American breads—Wonder, Pepperidge Farm, and so forth; detergents like Bold, Tide, and All; and Marcal paper towels. Into this installation were also incorporated art works of two kinds: those we were intended to laugh at and those in whose pointed sarcasm we were meant to share. The former category included plates embossed with paintings by Norman Rockwell, a bar scene by Leroy Nieman, and some of those cheap, “pretty” depictions of farmhouses and landscapes in oil that adorn the walls of diners throughout the land. In the latter category were works alluding to such matters as white supremacy, American imperialism, and other issues of related interest. One of these, according to a label, had been created by a group of high-school students, whose average age was fourteen or fifteen, and it consisted of those all-pervasive biomorphic creatures from science fiction so dear to graffiti artists, here painstakingly rendered in gold paint upon the matted-out pages of an entire chapter of Kafka’s Amerika. One imagines the students were put to their task by solicitous elders, but curiously what they produced was artistically superior to the entire installation of which it was intended to be a part.

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Although the artists who organized the Americana installation characteristically resisted identifying themselves with any specifiable doctrine, preferring instead to take refuge in pregnant innuendo, for them, clearly, this was America. Not their America, of course, nor that of the white upper-middle-class museumgoers who seemed in the main vaguely to concur with the meaning of the piece, but, simply put, the America of the sort of people who do not go to the Whitney. And taken in this sense, their installation was emblematic of an attitude struck over and over again in the Biennial Exhibition.

Indeed, for every work I have so far discussed—and I have limited myself to those that at least aspired to formal excellence—there was another at the Biennial whose only aim was to articulate ideas of a purely tendentious, if not a propagandistic, nature. Though uninteresting as individual pieces, in their conjunction these works bespoke a cast of mind that not only dominated the Whitney show but is a defining characteristic of the art world of today.

You had only to look at the Biennial catalogue to get a sense of this. In appearance this document was almost subversively unprepossessing. The title was printed in an improbable combination of yellow and gray, upon a rough darker gray surface, intended, I believe, to simulate the counter of the museum’s bookstore where it would be purchased. The impression it gave was one of marginal but willful vulgarity, as though renouncing even the quest for formal excellence.

This renunciation must not be confused with the supposed cult of ugliness that we find, say, in the German Expressionists. It might rather be called a cult of tackiness—not that its acolytes would necessarily take this as a derogatory description. In one way or another, it pervaded many of the works displayed at the Whitney, especially those that incorporated elements of mass culture.

In understanding the choice of ingredients that have gone into this tackiness, it is important to appreciate that they are all American, and that for the most part they are incorporated into work by artists younger than forty. Superficially, there exists a certain similarity between the works of this new generation of American artists and the Pop artists of the early 60’s—something of the same allusiveness, and the same faddishness. But there is also a difference. Pop artists selected their motifs from a mass culture that was contemporaneous with what they were creating; today’s artists, in recurring to these selfsame images, are invoking associations that are manifestly outmoded, and which they now exhume from their earliest childhood.

These motifs have personal meaning for contemporary artists, bringing with them a wave of memories that extends back to the innocence of youth. But they are no more able to accept these images on their own terms than the Pop artists were able to do, and as much as they are fascinated by them, they are also repelled. The tone of this newest trend in American art is one of emotional dislocation, underscored by superficially cheerful forms. Every attitude the artist adopts is to be understood ironically, as if it were in quotation marks. Underlying the coy reverence for the icons of American mass culture which many of these works seem to project, there are unmistakably the marks of condescension, and of something worse.

The paradox of the Whitney Biennial is that it takes place in a society in which art and artists are more highly regarded than at any other point in the history of the world; and the Whitney, whether or not it chooses to acknowledge the fact, is at once the creation of this society and the proof positive that the artists to whom it has given quarter have “arrived.” And yet, in case after case, the precondition for an artist’s selection would seem to be the striking of a certain posture of disdain, if not contempt, for the very society that has engendered both him and the museum upon which the authentication of his work depends.

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In this respect, no two art exhibitions could seem superficially so dissimilar as the Biennials at the Whitney and the Salons of 18th-century France. The artists of those days, it would be thought, were little more than the slaves and toadies of powerful and aristocratic patrons, and the works they created aspired to nothing higher artistically than blinkered obedience to the rules that had been laid down long before by a few illustrious progenitors. Yet it happens that the Whitney show is as important to the ambitions of today’s artists as the Salons were to the artists of earlier days, and although there is not so direct a link between exhibitions and commissions as there was then, the fact remains that any American artist who wants to compete for big money and widespread recognition does not stand a chance if he has not received at least once this biennial anointment.

A further and more important resemblance derives from the fact that such exhibitions, now as then, cannot but represent society precisely as it is willing to be perceived. The historian from Mars whose only clue to life on earth in the 18th century was the paintings in the Salon of 1785 would have had to conclude that the society which had generated them was one of consummate peace and gracefulness, that all the women were beautiful and all the men noble in appearance, and that the sovereign who lorded over their proceedings was a great and benevolent man. That same historian, basing his opinion of us solely upon the Whitney Biennial, would be forced to conclude that ours was a nation of open immorality and that on the whole we were ugly, cynical, and lecherous.

We know, of course, that in neither appraisal would the Martian historian be correct. The 18th century did not have a premium on virtue and great men, nor is our age so conspicuous in depravity as our artists would have us believe. These impressions merely reflect the way each of the societies wishes to be perceived, the paradigm to which an artist, if he is to succeed in the art market of the day, must obediently conform. It is as unconscionable to the contemporary art world that a respectful portrait of Ronald Reagan should appear at the Whitney as it would have been that a disrespectful portrait of Louis XVI should have appeared in the Salon of 1785. The difference is that at least the viewers of the 18th century were skeptical of the images they were being sold. The modern viewer, by contrast, is likely to believe and even to relish what he sees, and by it to be confirmed in those feelings of well-bred Angst and dark foreboding which he has been taught to regard as appropriate to any informed assessment of the human condition.

In one of his poems, Emerson has the god Brahma say of his deniers, “When me they fly, I am the wings;/ I am the doubter and doubt.” Although this is not the place to determine what true nonconformity in art would look like, we can say with confidence that most contemporary art that is designed to fly in the face of the “social order” is not so much a contravention of it as an unwitting part. So pervasive, and so glamorous, has the attitude of nonconformity become in recent years that (as Hilton Kramer has indefatigably argued) it has ceased to be what it was, and has become its opposite: the social order reconstituted. It is a fair guess that the vast majority of those viewers who felt like yielding a pious amen before each work of a suitable vanguardism were able to leave such convictions behind them at the Whitney as they left, and to resume the normal courses of their lives without too much of that alteration which an enlightened social conscience is supposed to produce in us. Through a convoluted dialectic, precisely this attitude of vanguardism has invented the terms in which the most durable elements of society now express themselves. History may never record a more insidious transmutation of values.

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Whatever its effects on society, antinomianism of this sort is certainly an impediment to good art. But it is not the only one. Equally destructive is the craving at all costs for that most marketable of commodities, originality. With the Old Masters, innovation occurred when an artist was impelled either wittingly or unwittingly to take the next step toward what would then have been thought the perfection of his art. Giotto in extending Cimabue, Raphael in extending Perugino, were not really seeking something new, or “unique”; rather, they found their own gifts by studiously imitating their masters, but with such sovereign skill that ultimately something new was born. This originality might be compared with that of modern technology, in which all minds strive toward the same solution, and the most advanced at any given time is the one that will prevail. Even if we tend not to accept the notion of progress as being applicable to art, still it made perfect sense to the disciples of Raphael.

But like that other kind of consumerism that changes the color of a shampoo or the shape of its bottle in order merely to enhance its marketability, so the majority of contemporary artists are concerned with the new for reasons either of finance or of vanity. Surely there are some artists working today who have managed to create a genuinely unique style, but for every such artist, who can calculate the hundreds of others in whom the frenzied quest for originality has actually negated such restricted potential as they might otherwise have enjoyed? Earlier artists of only middling endowment, through adherence to a system of precedents, were able to create works of a certain limited beauty and appeal; today it is all or nothing, and this may explain why it should paradoxically be true that in an age in which so much art is constantly being produced, so little of it should actually contain as much as a breath of true inspiration.

Indeed, perhaps the most disturbing realization raised by the Whitney Biennial was that, with the exception of Jasper Johns and other older artists who were not represented this year, there seems to be little inspiration left in American art. The new American generation seems to have nowhere to go, and can only repeat ad infinitum its tiresome heterodoxies.

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