Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Last week, I viewed the most ambitious and thrilling new sculptures I have seen in a long time. They are by Matthew Barney, and are part of a triad of works (which also includes etched drawings and a film, Redoubt) that he has been making over the past six years, on show at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven (until 16 June). In fact, the last time I saw such exciting and paradigm-shifting new sculptures was five years ago when Barney showed work connected to his previous film, River of Fundament (2014) at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.
Barney burst forth as a mature artist in the late 1980s straight from Yale. He is one of the few true visionary artists of our time. These new sculptures are both radical and classical, innovative in process, exquisite in execution and ambitious in scope. Their remarkable detail, shiny surfaces and depiction of the transformative made me think of Bernini while their alchemical aura bring Beuys to mind.
They were made by casting trees killed in a forest fire, in a process that might be best described as “ the lost tree” process, a kind of metamorphic means of forcing molten metals into the trees, which are themselves destroyed as the scalding metal hardens into sculpture. One work is fashioned like a giant rifle. In another, the artist suspended the destruction of the tree midstream, twisting the charred wood and the metal surrounding it into the suspended state of a chrysalis.
Each of the sculptures is shrouded in rippled lacy wondrousness formed by an improvisational process the artist defined as he made the works, whereby molten copper and brass are poured a clay slurry. This results in an instantaneous and abrupt halting of the process which produces uncommonly delicate forms. These fineries of the sculptures function as we would never expect cast metals to do: like hair, the wind, and plankton in a permanent state of transforming. Each is encased in mythological references to Diana and the hunt (themes brought into complex narrative form in the film), while also very much being the embodiment of life—its fragility and transience—and the essence of sculpture, the processes by which it is made, its existence in its own right, and its metaphoric power in the cosmic unfolding of life.
Fifty years from now, few of the artists we now exalt will have stood the test of time (like most artists of the decades and centuries before them). While I am confident in the likely longevity of few, I am relatively certain that no artist of such exquisite and singular vision as Matthew Barney has emerged since Matthew Barney.
I find it both revealing and grim that Barney—one of the greatest artists to have emerged in the past 50 years—is hardly known to the generation of collectors who are driving and defining today’s art market. It seems yet more bleak that the profound and phenomenally inventive work he has been making since the turn of the century has not been the subject of a major New York museum exhibition. Indeed, this remarkable new body of work is not being shown in New York, which is symptomatic of how the professionalization of art has turned so much from the market to museums into a numbers game.
This is not intended to denigrate our museums, all of which have done extraordinary programming in recent years. Nonetheless, this is clearly a very different moment and climate than that of 2003, when Barney’s electrifying The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) literally took over—and cascaded from—the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum. The museum was jammed like a Happening, bursting with 20-year-olds who somewhat mystifyingly and ebulliently found their way to an art museum where such a crowd had not been seen before, especially in such numbers—well before the advent of Instagram.
But today, the slots at most museums for the rigorous, the risky, and what could often be thought of as remote to today’s art scenes are decreasing in numbers. One could hardly fault the museums which are becoming increasingly dependent on the popularity of exhibitions for essential earned income and major funding. It is a reality of our time, and of much of the art of our time (and one that the next issue of In Other Words will explore in detail).
An almost forgotten movement is being rediscovered
You don’t “want to be an outlier in your conviction about the relevance of work to the present moment: you want to know that new generations of curators, scholars and artists are seeing something too,” says Anna Katz, an Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
She is organizing a major survey exhibition dedicated to a movement that was mysteriously absent in the art historical discourse of the 1990s and early 2000s. One particular work in MOCA’s collection caught her attention: several strips of cloth hanging down loosely from a horizontal bar, the hand-painted panels resembling bolts of colorful patterned fabric featuring jolly watermelons, ice creams, a smiley face and a baseball player, alongside abstract designs, but painted by hand. “When I first saw it, I thought ‘What the hell is this?’”, Katz says.
The work was Slide Out (1980) and the artist was Kim MacConnel, part of a group of artists working in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s called the Pattern and Decoration movement. The forthcoming MOCA exhibition (“With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985”, 27 October, 2019-30 March, 2020) is one of several exhibitions about the movement, which reemerged in 2007 via a modest survey at the Hudson River Museum which was praised by The New York Times critic Holland Cotter as “funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, hypnotic”.
Two major surveys have since been mounted in Europe: “Pattern and Decoration: Ornament as Promise”, which opened at the Ludwig Forum, Aachen last September and is currently on show at Mumok, Vienna (until 8 September), and “Pattern, Decoration & Crime”’, which originated at Mamco, Geneva last October and will travel to Le Consortium, Dijon, this May.
So, what the hell is Pattern and Decoration?
To some, it was a reaction against the hegemony of Minimalist sculpture and painting at the beginning of the 1970s – the “minimalist grey slabs”, as Katz puts it, that were ubiquitous at that time. Yet one of the artists, Robert Kushner, gets impatient when it is described as “a reaction against Minimalism.” In the Ludwig Forum catalogue, he explains: “It was much more an issue of temperament. We all loved things to look at that were full, not reduced to a barely inflected surface… If a newly discovered source had color, movement, association, richness, charm, well, bring it on.”
The group included, amongst others, Kushner, Valerie Jaudon, Tina Girouard, Joyce Kozloff, Kim MacConnel, Miriam Schapiro, Brad Davis and Robert Zakanitch, and was one of the few modern artistic movements to self-designate autonomously. The work produced by these artists, though usually abstract and vibrantly colorful, varied. Jaudon painted geometric patterns influenced both by Frank Stella and Islamic and Celtic ornamentation while Kushner’s paintings developed in tandem with the costumes he made and wore in performances and Kozloff created installations including ceramic tiles and silk-screened fabric wall-hangings referencing Native American, Persian, Berber, Egyptian and Art Nouveau designs.
The artists “wanted to make an art of aesthetic inclusion, which also for them was a political inclusion,” Katz says. “They were saying ‘more is more’.” One of Pattern and Decoration’s most distinctive characteristics was that, rather than adopting a critical, polemical position, it was an unironic—even sentimental—expression of these artists’ personal passions.
While Pattern and Decoration had roots in the Feminist art of the early 1970s (Schapiro, a senior member, led the Feminist Art Program at CalArts with Judy Chicago), some male members rejected the notion that theirs were primarily Feminist concerns. The reality is more nuanced; after all, this was the time of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements, during which there was growing consciousness of non-Western cultures. It was the hippie era, one in which an environmentalist movement encouraging the recycling of discarded materials developed. The questioning of traditional gender roles—by both men and women—was just one aspect of the broad sociopolitical changes taking place.
Regardless of whether the artists themselves saw their motivations as Feminist, “their radical reappraisal of the decorative and their challenge to those hierarchies” are inarguably connected to the issues that arose out of the Feminist movement, Katz argues.
The approaches and impulses of the Pattern and Decoration movement spread beyond the core group of members. “There is a wide range of artists, well beyond what’s normally considered, who were rethinking decorative objects and patterned surfaces in that period,” says Katz, who is including in her exhibition the work of artists such as Lynda Benglis who identified as Feminist, alongside work by figures including Billy Al Bengston and Al Loving, who were only peripherally associated with P&D.
Why has the reassessment taken so long?
Today, trends in contemporary art, such as what Katz calls the “meteoric rise” of ceramics, have made viewers more receptive to Pattern and Decoration. “Everywhere I look in younger artists’ studios I see color and pattern and an investment in surface,” she says. “I see artists thinking through Matisse, and artists thinking through the global origins of abstraction.” Painters from Sarah Cain to Alex Olson, from Rebecca Morris to Mickalene Thomas, all make work in which we can see the legacy of Pattern and Decoration, while Sanford Biggers and Jeffrey Gibson have both acknowledged the movement as an influence.
Additionally, our current climate is vastly more attentive to historical Feminist art even than it was a decade ago. And, for Esther Boehle, who curated the show at the Ludwig Forum, “the topics dealt with by Pattern and Decoration have become increasingly relevant and perhaps even controversial, in a world that is far more globalized and characterized by asymmetrical power relations than ever before.”
Why did it vanish?
The reasons why it so abruptly disappeared in the first place are harder to ascertain though the emergence in the 1980s of Postmodernism in critical discourse was a major factor. While it shared P&D’s affinity for pluralism and the transgressive mixing of high and low, Postmodernism differed in one crucial respect: above all, it was a viewpoint characterized by irony and skepticism. P&D’s unironic embrace of beauty, and its sincere homage of its sources, came to be viewed with suspicion by the academic community. Still today, says Katz, “Critical theory does not really provide a way to think about this love, this sincerity, this embrace.”
The 1970s were also a period in which there were tectonic shifts in the contemporary art market, says Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of AAP. “It was a decade dominated by art of scale, by works situated in the landscape, or by art created in such ephemeral media as performance and video—and consequently the American market in particular had little interest in the work of emerging artists,” he says. Nonetheless, the New York dealer Holly Solomon was the main champion of Pattern and Decoration artists in the early 1970s, and who brought the artists she represented considerable commercial success.
There was interest in the work by European dealers including Bruno Bischofberger and Thomas Ammann, whose “strategy was to buy in depth, begin to develop interest in the work, and sit on the bulk of the inventory as demand grew,” Schwartzman says, adding that “such a practice depends on limiting access and accelerating rises in pricing.” Solomon—whose dealing functioned in a different way, focused more on the long-term growth of the artist’s career—and was cooperative only to a point.
As the market began to accelerate in 1979 and 1980 for successive generations of younger artists, and with the emergence of Annina Nosei-Weber, and Metro Pictures—plus the rise of Mary Boone as a major force in the market—the tide shifted from Solomon to the next generation that would come to define the market of the 1980s, from which today’s market rises. “I always felt that there was less of a delineation between P&D and the next generation that emerged, but there was an attitude that was substantially different between them,” Schwartzman says. “And that attitude ultimately ruled where the market focused and how it evolved.”
Despite recent curatorial attention, we are not seeing an uptick in the market for Pattern and Decoration yet, says Schwartzman: these things don’t necessarily correlate. Meanwhile, the museums have more work to do themselves. Beyond two works by MacConnel, “MOCA’s collection does not yet really tell the Pattern and Decoration story,” Katz says, adding: “Of course, I hope to change that through this show.”
In Must See
Pop, as the movement’s most famous exponent Andy Warhol declared in 1963, is “about liking things”. The special things Andy loved to like appear front and center of the current retrospective at the Whitney Museum (“Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again”, until 31 March), the first organized by a US institution since 1989.
The art here is an unbridled celebration of mass consumption. Glorifying objects from Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo pad boxes, cans of tuna to dollar bills, these works constitute the artist’s deadpan view of high culture.
If Warhol was not the first American artist to exploit the glut of mass advertising imagery (Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg beat him to that gut punch) he quickly became its cool, non-judgmental avatar. He was the first artist to effectively embody a culture of promotion as such.
His silkscreen “paintings” were not just parodies of invention; the same repeating canvases incorporated the idea of the mass production of images of mass production in a voracious feedback loop. Warhol’s Franklin Mint approach captured his mercantile legacy in a nutshell. Starting in the early 1960s, his work didn’t just illustrate the triumph of commercialism over every other possible aspect of life—his swelling oeuvre and his tireless self-promotion became actual motors of this change.
No work in the current survey, which has been organized by Whitney Senior Curator Donna De Salvo, epitomizes Warhol’s embrace of the 20th century’s most enduring -ism, commercialism, more than Green Coca-Cola Bottles.
Created in 1962, the year the artist developed his silkscreen technique, the canvas represents, to paraphrase a line from William Carlos Williams, rows upon rows of “the pure products of America gone crazy”. At the Whitney, the image of a single Coca-Cola bottle repeats across a vertical canvas in unremitting sequence, seven high by sixteen across, above the company’s crimson logo. If the repetitive imagery and standardized format evoke the look of mechanical reproduction, the bottles’ black outlines retain fine art’s fundamental rejection of retail—they were hand stamped from a single carved woodblock onto green areas printed in a grid pattern.
The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and you can drink Coke, too
According to the Whitney’s exhibition text, Warhol’s success as both a commercial illustrator and artist hinged on his ability to “sell the sizzle, not the steak”. Yet, in choosing to make the contours of a Coca-Cola bottle the subject of several paintings—another three canvases featuring Coke containers hang near Green Coca Cola Bottles—he celebrated the product’s iconic recognizability, its worldwide commercial appeal and its consumerist promise with unparalleled zeal. He said: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” [The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975)]
If Warhol’s 1970s-era quote sounds like a Rotarian blithely equating consumerism with democracy, consider this: Andy’s aesthetic provocations proved fundamentally revolutionary for a Western imagination spellbound by shiny new Chryslers, Frigidaire refrigerators and the promise that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. It did not, but Warhol’s artistic legacy, as surveyed at the Whitney, endures—cool, green-eyed and fizzy as pop.
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