How It Got That Way

"The current paradigm demands that a work be at once fairly old and very new. It's a crazy situation."


How It Got That Way
June 16, 1966

Most shows that are “about” something are boring even when the works in them are interesting. Such exhibitions usually are the bright ideas of museum functionaries who see it as their duty to educate or otherwise to molest the public. Of late the favored “thematic content” has been all Art History, and the criterion of selection generally has been somebody’s notion of “significance.” The typical catalogue piece is quick to establish the art’s pedigree above all else, perhaps excepting its novelty. The current paradigm demands that a work be at once fairly old and very new.

It’s a crazy situation. What makes it crazier is the docile way the new historicism lies down with the equally modish rage for identification of Cultural Phenomena. A presumed Development in the arts is seen as ipso facto a commentary on and an expression of the times (and how is YOUR sensibility coming along?), often before the paint on it is dry. Thus is the barn door flung open to the popular phrase-twirlers and it’s every man for himself. The slick magazines invented Pop five years ago and have mostly succeeded (with the help of general disarray and hysteria in critical ranks) in keeping obscure the essential differences between Batman posters and the great and good art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al. The same hackers have maintained the Myth of Op first promulgated by the publicists of the Museum of Modern Art, that is, the myth that Op actually exists as a discrete motive in art, against tons of evidence to the contrary. All this is bound to make discourse on historical point and order seem a little unreal, though in fact it makes such discourse a prerogative of just anybody. After all, everyone should be concerned with his times, n’est-ce pas? and the current conviction that art is a fail-safe barometer to the times makes art and the artist seem public utilities.

A Bit Uneasy

Naturally, people who have imbibed this mythic hash but still (as ever) know nothing about art tend to get a bit uneasy. This is where the shows “about” things come in — instant short courses in one or another Right Idea about what’s happening (or about what has been or was or will be happening), in which the student need never so much as admit his ignorance: He has the perfect alibi of having come to a museum to look at paintings.

But what, meanwhile, has happened to those paintings? Mainly, a grid has been dropped between the work and the viewer automatically selecting and enforcing the Insight that has been concocted for his edification. Witness the Modern’s Turner show (a kind of apotheosis), “Illusion and Reality” — Everyman an Art Historian — “Look, ma, imitations of abstractions!” It should perhaps be possible to ignore the pedagogy and just to look at the works, but it’s easy to prefer the museum’s superb snack bar to the effort. And now I see by the Modern’s prospectus that its upcoming Matisse retrospective is going to “stress… the qualities of ‘ecstasy and tranquility’ which he continuously sought.” Unbelievable!

People (non-artists, non-students, non-patrons) used to resist fine art; now they flock to it — by every available short-cut. Not that I’m “against” this. In the words of Ted Berrigan, “Get the money!” Meanwhile, however, the fact of boredom remains, as does the cold fact that you get out of a work of art exactly what you bring to it.


Before they got totally out of hand, the above reflections were meant as an introduction to an interesting exhibition which continues at the Finch College Museum (64 East 78th Street) until June 30. Its called “Art in Process” and it’s “about” “the steps these artists have taken to develop their work,” to which end the museum has bolstered with drawings, models, and related material an accumulation of finished works by 18 artists, many of whom were presented in the Jewish Museum’s latest Significant-type show, the “Primary Structures” melange. It seems an especially timely idea. “Conceptual art” (roughly, art visualized before it is executed) has a way of seeming fortuitous, no one’s responsibility. This quality may be nicely astringent, and in fact indispensable to the art’s aesthetic, but our curiosity about the work as personal manifestation is not eradicated through not being served. Now here we are offered documentation of how the stuff got to be the way it is. We might expect to be grateful.

As it turns out, the show fails in its ambition to instill a sense of “process.” But it does instill, almost accidentally, a lively sense of art. In effect, the big, finished works, some of them marvelous, are seen in relief against the mostly bland little drawings, hen-scratched notebooks, etc., which, if they ever make their presence felt, generally do on their own steam. The effect is a heightened appreciation of the finished product. When you look from Don Judd’s ho-hum sketch to the huge red galvanized-steel wall construction that, somehow, proceeded from it, you get a notion of what “genius” is. You’re left, in the end, to reflect that the essential steps in a creative process are almost always invisible — by any account, enough Truth for one summer month. All museum exhibitions should fail so benignly.

There is, however, at least one exception. The presence en masse of Will Insley’s drawings and cardboard and masonite models — the cardboard models on a flimsy paper shelf, the bright-colored masonite “stand-ups” on a big table designed by he artist — is terrifically impressive. They’re all so GOOD! Even the tiny cardboard things, with their faint evocation of rainy-day handicraft, are exquisitely realized dialogues of line and plane among other things, and the drawings positively jump with the energy of ideation. What comes across is not so much “process” as a thoroughly classical belief in the uniform viability on all levels of the artistic impulse, which, however, naturally aspires to grandeur. Had one of Insley’s really big works been present, he might irretrievably have stolen the show.

As it is, a couple of other things hold their own (along with Don Judd’s, already mentioned). Notable are the “minimal” (s0-called) constructions of Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. Morris offers a pristine off-white tetrahedron, stuck in a corner so as to offer only one oblique face to the room. You feel it before you see it, a simple and emphatic tic in the environment, a quirk in the order of things — as inevitable as the weather but more beautiful, because you can touch it. LeWitt’s absolutely rectilinear, booth-shaped framework of black wood assumes a sullen center stage. It is unapproachable, a trifle ugly, strong and very funny. It seems designed to freak out the other works near it.

Which is precisely what Dan Flavin’s yellow, diagonally hung fluorescent light (eight feet long) does to the other works in the room devoted to neon sculpture. It is so handsome and curiously moving (as sign and gesture), it makes its complex neighbors seem hopelessly lurid and confused.

No one general impulse can be said to dominate this polyglot congregation, but for me the reductive tendency, toward the very barest of statements, comes off best. The seemingly more “ambitious” works (excepting maestro Insley’s and those, for sure, of Richard Artschwager and Lyman Kipp) often are only too well served by the supplementary material. Their conceptions creak. They seem somehow cooked-up, marriages of dubiously matched ideas, impure, if only under the diamantine aspect of Morris, Flavin, et al. There is a powerful mythic quality to this art of the minimum (perhaps “of our time” but I wouldn’t know), an image of the artist at once nutty and heroic — the artist doing a single, vaguely hieratical thing almost “whether he likes it or not,” running the lifelong risk of boring himself to death in quest of the irreducible that happens to please. The absolutely accurate shot in the dark. One guesses the idea will never get so popular as seriously to tempt the curators, this being all to its honor and to the general good.