Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army, Danto studied art and history at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and then at Columbia University.
From 1949 to 1950, Danto studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, and in 1951 returned to teach at Columbia, where he is currently Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy.
Since 1984, he has been art critic for The Nation, and in addition to his many books on philosophical subjects, he has published several collections of art criticism, including Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992); Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California, 1995); and, most recently, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). He lives in New York City.
In Empire Falls, Richard Russo's neo-Dickensian novel of a dying mill-town in central Maine, the high school art teacher is portrayed as something of a soul-killer. Indifferent if not hostile to signs of true creativity in her students, she encourages them to admire, for bad aesthetic reasons, what the author regards as bad art. Her favorite painter, for example, specializes in old rowboats and the rocky Maine shoreline, and on his local-access show, Painting for Relaxation, he executes a painting in exactly one hour, start to finish. Entirely aware of her teacher's impaired taste, the best student in the class still cannot but admire the TV painter's way of attacking the canvas: It is as though his arm, wrist, hand, fingers and brush are an extension of his eye, or perhaps his will. It comes as something of a surprise that teacher and student have this admiration in common with Joan Mitchell (1926-92), one of the great if underappreciated Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School, whose luminous achievement is honored with a celebratory exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art through September 29. Every morning, according to Kenneth Tyler, in whose graphics workshop in Mount Kisco Mitchell frequently worked on prints when she was in this country, she would watch a public television show whose host was a landscape painter with a Southern drawl; in each episode a painting would be created, from primed canvas to the emergence of a mountain scene or a seascape. Tyler says that Mitchell adored that show, and she'd be in a good mood when she came down to the studio from the apartment, just after a shower.
Mitchell must have found especially appealing the swift, sure, dancelike way the TV painter dashed his brush across the canvas, just as so-called action painters were supposed to do, but left, at the same time, a recognizable image behind. Despite her abstractionist credentials, she saw herself as a landscape artist--what's so interesting about a square, circle and triangle? And just as the TV painter was able to create an outdoor scene within the windowless space of a television studio, she evoked trees, bridges or beaches in a downtown Manhattan studio that looked out on a brick wall. "I carry my landscapes around with me," she told Irving Sandler when he interviewed her for "Mitchell Paints a Picture," one of a famous series that appeared on and off in ArtNews in the 1950s. She seems to have been remarkably tolerant for someone as strongly opinionated as she typically was. "There is no one way to paint," she said to Sandler. "There is no single answer." She characterized herself as something of a conservative.
The picture that Mitchell painted for Sandler's 1957 article referred to a remembered moment in East Hampton some years earlier, when a legendarily undisciplined poodle she owned went swimming. She called the picture George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold, and it typifies her extraordinary work of the middle 1950s, when she seemed to paint only masterpieces. The implied narrative of the title refers to the course the painting took, rather than an actual change of temperature on that memorable day. The yellows, which emblematized the warm light of a summer afternoon, gave way, for reasons internal to the painting, to areas of white and hence, wittily, to winter. It is hardly the kind of landscape a TV painter would have ended his hour with. There is a thick tangle of heavy, largely horizontal brush strokes about a third of the way up the canvas--black-blues, ochres, paler greens and a surprising passage of cadmium red. A patch of grays and pale blues in the upper right corner feels like winter sky, while a spread of strongly swept blues and purples at the bottom of the canvas must be a reminiscence of water. The feeling of cold is mostly achieved through white and whitish spaces, climbing like broken ice from bottom to top, punctuated by slashes and lashes of fluid pigment that the clever student in Empire Falls High School would recognize as the artist's attack. The painting manages to meld ferocity and tranquillity into a single stunning image that is Mitchell at the height of her powers.
The first painting of Mitchell's that I recall seeing had an immense impact on me. Since I followed the Abstract Expressionist scene, I may have seen her work earlier without, so to speak, encountering it. What I knew absolutely was that this was a great painting, that I would wish to have painted it more than any other, and that it was entirely beyond me. By contrast with this artist, everyone I knew of was comparatively tentative and fearful, as the young student in Empire Falls felt her work to be. It was somewhat chastening, in those sexist days, to realize that it had been painted by a woman. Possibly it could only have been painted by a woman; but in any case a stereotype had been shattered. The painting was called Hemlock, and it hung by itself in the first room of the Martha Jackson Gallery, on East 66th Street. It seemed to me that Abstract Expression had found a new direction and that its methods could now be used almost like poetry, to capture and communicate real experience. In the interview with Sandler, Mitchell said, "The painting has to work, but it has to say something more than that the painting works." It had been enough, in those days, that a painting should work. There was little beyond that one could say. But with Hemlock, as with so many of the pieces Mitchell did around the same time, it went beyond what Duchamp dismissed as that "retinal shudder": She brought the world as she lived it into her art, and as advanced as her work of the 1950s was, experiencing it was like experiencing nature in an intense, revelatory moment. No one else I knew of had managed that.
Hemlock is a tree composed as an ascending set of horizontal sweeps of green and black against a white winter sky. The bands seem hung like branches on a trunk, explicit in certain passages, whited out but implied in others, and it feels constructed, like a complex Chinese character that could have been an ideogram for hemlock, built stroke by parallel stroke up the left side of the canvas. But it is not static. Some of the branches seem to be whipped into movement, on the canvas's right side, as if they were feeling their way into emptiness at the edge of a cliff, like a heroic oak tree once painted by the Norwegian artist Dahl, which his nation adopted as the symbol of its toughness in an adverse world. Whipped loops of black paint animate the air, and cascades of drips rain down. The whole image has the quality of a great drawing, except, of course, that the white is not the background of white paper but is itself painted in such a way as to interanimate the thrashing branches and the vividness of the void. Only de Kooning could have come close to Hemlock. Kline was never able to solve the problem of adding color to his black-and-white canvases without diluting them.
Mitchell was as much one with the art world of her time as the tree in Hemlock is with the paint it is made of. Had that world perdured, she would have been one of the most celebrated artists of our time. The fact that she has instead been neglected lies, I think, not in the circumstances of her gender--as Jane Livingston, the curator, to whom we must all be grateful for this wonderful show, alleges in her catalogue essay--but in the fact that she painted for the rest of her life as if she were drawing sustenance from an art world that had in truth vanished. She was like a fragment of a planet that had broken off and followed an independent orbit, after the planet itself had crumbled to bits.
The direction of art changed radically and irrevocably a very few years after my encounter with Hemlock. In 1961, Allan Kaprow, chief author if not the inventor of "Happenings," installed Yard in the courtyard of Martha Jackson's new gallery on East 69th Street. It consisted in a disordered heap of used automobile tires. Kaprow, who wrote his master's thesis (studying with the art critic Meyer Schapiro at Columbia) on Mondrian, worked with John Cage at the New School for Social Research in the years Mitchell was establishing her name (1956-58). He shortly gave up painting for assemblage and made chance and indeterminacy the principles of his work. Kaprow's epochal Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts took place at the Reuben Gallery in 1959. Hemlock and Yard reflect different moments of the pervasive influence of Zen on New York art in the 1950s. Hemlock belongs to the impulse of haiku and Zen watercolors. The pile of tires belongs to what I was later to call the transfiguration of the commonplace. Its impact on me, though I hardly recognized its meaning in 1961, was largely philosophical. It consisted in the question that now seems to me to have defined the 1960s, namely, Why was a pile of worthless rubber tires a work of art and not simply a pile of worthless rubber tires? Clement Greenberg was to call this novelty art. Mitchell, open as she may have been about painting, dismissed what was happening as "pop, slop, and plop." It was not a transient phenomenon but a revolution in the production of art that remains with us forty years later.
Mitchell began to work in Paris intermittently in the 1950s, but she carried her inner landscapes with her as well, for a while at least, as her unmistakable style. In a sense, she was a New York School painter working in the fifteenth arrondissement; and though she gave her pictures French titles in the 1960s, one does not feel that they had as yet any French references. Grandes Carrières is a densely crowded thicket of pigment in the middle of a horizontal canvas, which could have an autumnal reference, with red and brown branches, and could even be read as a wildly brushed still life poised before a window, though the title means "large quarries." Abstract Expressionism was a world movement, but it assumed different identities from nation to nation: French Abstract Expressionism was unmistakably School of Paris through its irrepressible tastefulness, and Japanese Abstract Expressionism had a reckless scariness that New York was not ready for. The beautiful Untitled (1963), with its airy lightness, its lyrical scaffold of olive-green strokes and touches, continues to have a New York feeling. But with Blue Tree, and particularly Calvi, both done in 1964, Mitchell begins to respond to European, one even feels to Mediterranean, motifs. Calvi is a green, thick island of paint, almost scrubbed into or onto an otherwise nearly empty expanse sparsely enlivened by running calligraphic strokes. And then, perhaps in My Landscape II, 1967, and especially in Low Water, 1969, some deep change, inner or outer, has taken place, and she becomes a different painter from what she'd been, one about whom I have mixed feelings. She has become somehow more European.
In 1988--I had by then begun to write this column--I traveled down to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to see a retrospective show of Joan Mitchell's work. I had been caught up in the way the art world had gone in the early 1960s, and had more or less lost touch with Mitchell's work. But since it was something like having been in love to have been affected once by her paintings, I wanted to know what the artist had been doing over the intervening years. She was 62 years old, and she'd had a long, tempestuous relationship with the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose memorial show (he died this year) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ends the same day as Mitchell's. She had come into money and purchased a property in Vetheuil, on the banks of the Seine north of Paris, where Monet had painted before he moved to Giverny in 1881, after the death of his wife, Camille. In fact, Mitchell lived at 12 rue Claude Monet, and I wondered to what degree she had internalized the spirit of the site, or had, in her own way, taken on something of Monet's aura. A Dutch museum director recently complained to me that Mitchell had tried too hard to be like Monet. He compared her unfavorably with Ellsworth Kelly, who had gone to Paris and encountered Matisse, and then turned what he admired into something altogether American. But the relationship between Monet and Abstract Expressionism is more complex than that. Through Abstract Expressionism, Monet belonged to the spirit of American art.
Many of the great pieces from the 1950s were on view at the Corcoran, including Hemlock, which seems by general consensus to be her chef-d'oeuvre. But in the main, I was disappointed in the show, and I felt confirmed in my somewhat sour negativity by the fact that Livingston, who installed it, felt much the same way. "I was disturbed," she writes, "by what I thought was an uneven show. It was far too big, with too much emphasis on recent work. I learned that the artist herself had a hand in its selection, and as is not unusual in such circumstances, she simply could not edit out the works that had most recently come out of the studio." I had a somewhat different explanation. I thought the exhibition showed what happens when an artist, whose greatness owed so much to the discoveries of the movement she belonged with, outlives the movement. Individual achievement depends upon the criticism and applause of those who share one's language and values as an artist. It was an immense privilege to belong to a movement like Abstract Expressionism. Everyone who was part of it was greater through that fact than he or she would have been alone.
In any case, I did not write about the show. The happy ending to this is that Livingston has now used her great curatorial intuitions to put together the kind of show the artist herself would have been incapable of. It is chronological, but somehow orchestrated, and marked by a kind of phrasing, so that one is able to live Mitchell's life through her paintings. The issue of reference is less important than the recognition that the work is referential. No one can tell from the painting where George went swimming nearly half a century ago on Long Island, or which particular hemlock, now grown venerable and great, captured the artist's memory until it was delivered magnificently into art. But there is, in addition to reference, the mood and feeling that make the transformation of it into art memorable and urgent. More is happening in Calvi than fixing something visually compelling. One is not surprised to read that when she painted it, Mitchell was going through a serious emotional crisis. When the Japanese Abstract Expressionist Jiro Yoshihara did a memorial painting for Martha Jackson, who died in 1969, he was asked why it consisted of a simple white-on-black circle. He gave a Zen answer: "Since I did not have time, this was the best way I could do at the moment." That is how I feel about Calvi.
The show is so intense that when one turns a corner and comes upon Clearing, 1973, it really feels like a clearing. It is restful and calm, despite or perhaps because of the wavy black uneven oblongs in two of its three panels, but mainly because of its beautiful lavender rings, which to me felt like dreamy echoes of Yoshihara's image. There is something Japanese about it, with its loose arabesques and drips coming down like the rain in a print by Hiroshige. No one would know that La Vie en Rose was painted in 1979 to mark the end of Mitchell's long relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle. Mitchell, in a film I saw recently, put it this way: He ran off "with the dogsitter." The work expresses sadness, even grief, but also relief and a kind of resignation. Her polyptychs are extraordinarily personal, despite their scale and ambition, and often they are salutes to her peers. Wet Orange feels like a belle époque interior, and pays tribute to the oranges and blues Bonnard and Vuillard made their own. No Birds makes a wry reference to Van Gogh's late painting of crows in a golden two-panel cornfield, except--no birds. Instead the sky is clouded with blackish sweeps of dark menace, and one does not have to be told that the artist was going through terrible pain. I leave La Grande Vallée for you to put in your own words.
There has not been this much wonderful painting on view all at once for a very long time, and fascinating as art has been since the time when painting was the great bearer of its history, one cannot but be nostalgic walking these galleries, tracing this life through woods, clearings, fields, vales, masses of flowers, wet skies. What luck for Birmingham, Alabama, that the show will travel to its art museum from June 27 until August 31, 2003; for Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be on view at the Modern Art Museum, September 21, 2003-January 7, 2004; and Washington, DC, at The Phillips Collection, where it belongs by aesthetic affinity, from February 14-May 16, 2004.
Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The American the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."
By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint Sebastian bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced with arrows. He sees Géricault's Raft of the Medusa as tipped up like one of Cézanne's tables. "It has the kind of modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle...as in my own painting."
"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1. Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider, "I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture the sublime in painting.
Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work, and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the room beyond. Like all the great first generation of Abstract Expressionists, Newman seems to have passed abruptly from mediocrity to mastery with the invention of a new style--like the flung paint of Pollock, the heavy brush-strokes of de Kooning, Kline's timberlike black sweeps against white, Rothko's translucent rectangles of floating color. The pre-Onement paintings may seem somehow to point toward it, in the sense that there is in most of them a bandlike element that aspires, one might say, to become the commanding vertical streak. But in them, the streak (or band, or bar) shares space with other elements, splotches and squiggles and smears that are tentative and uninspired. The vertical streak alone survives a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, to become the exclusive and definitive element in Newman's vision, from Onement 1 onward. The basic format of Newman's work for the remainder of his career is that of one or more vertical bands, which run from the top to the bottom of the panel, in colors that contrast with a more or less undifferentiated surrounding field. Sometimes the bands will be of differing widths in the same painting, and sometimes, again, they will differ from one another in hue. But there will no longer be the variety of forms he used in the pre-Onement period of his work. It is as if he understood that with Onement 1, he had entered a newfound land rich enough in expressive possibilities that he need seek for nothing further by way of elementary forms. Onement 1 is planted like a flag at the threshold, and when one crosses over it, one is in a very different world from that marked by the uncertain pictures that preceded it.
I have followed Newman in respecting a distinction between pictures and paintings. Onement 1 was a painting, whereas what he had done before were merely pictures. How are we to understand the difference? My own sense is that a picture creates an illusory space, within which various objects are represented. The viewer, as it were, looks through the surface of a picture, as if through a window, into a virtual space, in which various objects are deployed and composed: the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints in an adoration; stripes surrounded by squiggles in an abstraction. In the Renaissance, a picture was regarded as transparent, so to speak, the way the front of the stage is, through which we see men and women caught up in actions that we know are not occurring in the space we ourselves occupy. In a painting, by contrast, the surface is opaque, like a wall. We are not supposed to see through it. We stand in a real relationship with it, rather than in an illusory relationship with what it represents. I expect that this is the distinction Newman is eager to make. His paintings are objects in their own right. A picture represents something other than itself; a painting presents itself. A picture mediates between a viewer and an object in pictorial space; a painting is an object to which the viewer relates without mediation. An early work that externally resembles Onement 1 is Moment, done in 1946. A widish yellow stripe bisects a brownish space. Newman said of it, "The streak was always going through an atmosphere; I was trying to create a world around it." The streak in Onement 1 is not in an atmosphere of its own, namely pictorial space. It is on the surface and in the same space as we are. Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.
At the same time, a painting is not just so much pigment laid across a surface. It has, or we might say it embodies, a meaning. Newman did not give Onement 1 a title when it was first exhibited, but it is reasonable to suppose that the meaning the work embodied was somehow connected with this strange and exalted term. In general, the suffix "-ment" is attached to a verb like "atone" or "endow" or "command," where it designates a state--the state of atoning, for example--or a product. So what does "onement" mean? My own sense is that it means the condition of being one, as in the incantation "God is one." It refers, one might say, to the oneness of God. And this might help us better understand the difference between a picture and a painting. Since Newman thinks of himself and Michelangelo as concerned with the same kinds of problems, consider the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo produces a number of pictures of God. Great as these are, they are constrained by the limitation that pictures can show only what is visible, and decisions have to be made regarding what God looks like. How would one picture the fact that God is one? Since Onement 1 is not a picture, it does not inherit the limitations inherent in picturing. The catalogue text says that Onement 1 represents nothing but itself and that it is about itself as a painting. I can't believe, though, that what Newman regarded in such momentous terms was simply a painting about painting. It is about something that can be said but cannot be shown, at least not pictorially. Abstract painting is not without content. Rather, it enables the presentation of content without pictorial limits. That is why, from the beginning, abstraction was believed by its inventors to be invested with a spiritual reality. It was as though Newman had hit upon a way of being a painter without violating the Second Commandment, which prohibits images.
Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment that "perhaps the most sublime passage in Jewish Law is the commandment Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth," etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people felt for their religion when compared with that of other peoples, or can explain the pride that Islam inspires. But this in effect prohibited Jews from being artists, since, until Modernism, there was no way of being a painter without making pictures and hence violating the prohibition against images! Paintings that are not pictures would have been a contradiction in terms. But this in effect ruled out the possibility of making paintings that were sublime, an aesthetic category to which Kant dedicated a fascinating and extended analysis. And while one cannot be certain how important the possibility of Jewish art was to Newman, there can be little question not only that the sublime figured centrally in his conception of his art but that it was part of what made the difference in his mind between American and European art. Indeed, sublimity figured prominently in the way the Abstract Expressionists conceived of their difference from European artists. Robert Motherwell characterized American painting as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime," adding, "No Parisian is a sublime painter." In the same year that Newman broke through with Onement 1, he published an important article, "The Sublime Is Now," in the avant-garde magazine Tiger's Eye. And my sense is that in his view, there could not be a sublime picture--that sublimity became available to visual artists only when they stopped making pictures and started making paintings.
Peter Schjeldahl recently dismissed the sublime as a hopelessly jumbled philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start meaning something cogent and has not succeeded yet. But the term had definite cogency in the eighteenth century, when philosophers of art were seeking an aesthetics of nature that went beyond the concept of beauty. Beauty for them meant taste and form, whereas the sublime concerned feeling and formlessness. Kant wrote that "nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived," and he cited, as illustrations,
Bold overhanging and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might.
Since Kant was constrained to think of art in terms of pictures as mimetic representations, there was no way in which painting could be sublime. It could only consist in pictures of sublime natural things, like waterfalls or volcanoes. While these might indeed be sublime, pictures of them could at most be beautiful. Kant does consider architecture capable of producing the feeling of sublimity. He cites Saint Peter's Basilica as a case in point because it makes us feel small and insignificant relative to its scale.
What recommended the sublime to Newman is that it meant a liberation from beauty, and hence a liberation from an essentially European aesthetic in favor of an American one. The European artist, Newman wrote,
has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for the sublime.... The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty. Meanwhile, I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how can we be creating an art that is sublime?
There can be little doubt that in Newman's sense of his own achievement, he had solved this problem with Onement 1. It is certainly not a beautiful painting, and one would miss its point entirely if one supposed that sooner or later, through close looking, the painting would disclose its beauty as a reward. There was a standing argument, often enlisted in defense of Modernism, that the reason we were unable to see modern art as beautiful was because it was difficult. Roger Fry had written, early in the twentieth century, that "every new work of creative design is ugly until it becomes beautiful; that we usually apply the word beautiful to those works of art in which familiarity has enabled us to grasp the unity easily, and that we find ugly those works in which we still perceive only by an effort." Newman's response to this would have been that he had achieved a liberation from what feminism would later call the beauty trap. He had achieved something grander and more exalted, a new art for new men and women.
Newman used the term "sublime" in the title of his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51). It is a tremendous canvas, nearly eight feet high and eighteen feet wide, a vast cascade of red paint punctuated by five vertical stripes of varying widths, set at varying intervals. Newman discussed this work (which the critic for The New Republic called asinine) in an interview with the British art critic David Sylvester in 1965.
One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.
Newman studied philosophy at City College, and Kant sprang to his lips almost as a reflex when he discussed art. But it is difficult not to invoke the central idea of Martin Heidegger's philosophy in connection with his comment to Sylvester. Heidegger speaks of human beings as Dasein, as "being there," and it is part of the intended experience of Newman's paintings that our thereness is implied by the scale of the paintings themselves. In his 1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, he put up a notice that while there is a tendency to look at large paintings from a distance, these works were intended to be seen from close up. One should feel oneself there, in relationship to the work, like someone standing by a waterfall. The title of the painting meant, he told Sylvester, "that man can be or is sublime in his relation to his sense of being aware." The paintings, one might say, are about us as self-aware beings.
A high point of the Philadelphia show is Newman's The Stations of the Cross, a series of fourteen paintings that is certainly one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century art. As a spiritual testament, it bears comparison with the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have the most vivid recollection of being quite overcome when I first experienced The Stations of the Cross in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Newman used as subtitle the Hebrew words Lema Sabachthani--Christ's human cry on the Cross. The means could not be more simple: black and white paint on raw canvas, which he used as a third color. The fourteen paintings do not map onto corresponding points on the road to Calvary. But Newman seems to use black to represent a profound change of state.
The first several paintings have black as well as white stripes (or "zips," as he came to call them, referring perhaps to the sound that masking tape makes when it is pulled away). Black entirely disappears in the Ninth Station, in which a stripe of white paint runs up the left edge, and two thin parallel white stripes are placed near the right edge. The rest is raw canvas. The Tenth and Eleventh stations resemble it, through the fact that they too are composed of white stripes placed on raw canvas. Then, all at once, Twelfth Station is dramatically black, as is the Thirteenth Station. And then, in the Fourteenth Station, black again abruptly disappears. There is a strip of raw canvas at the left, and the rest is white, as if Christ yielded up the ghost as St. Matthew narrates it. The work demonstrates how it is possible for essentially abstract paintings to create a religious narrative.
No one today, I suppose, would hold painting in the same exalted state that seemed possible in the 1950s. Newman became a hero to the younger generation of the 1960s, when the history of art that he climaxed gave way to a very different era. He triumphed over his savage critics, as great artists always do; and all who are interested in the spiritual ambitions of painting at its most sublime owe themselves a trip to Philadelphia to see one of the last of the great guys in this thoughtful and inspired exhibition, the first to be devoted to his work in more than thirty years.
I have been on something of a Shakespeare comedy jag over the past months; I laughed all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to New York a few weeks ago, reading Love's Labor's Lost. I had read As You Like It just before 9/11, and had a dream one night after that day that I was in the Forest of Arden with its population of clowns and witty young women picking cowslips. I felt entirely exalted until I woke up with the memory of the smoke and horror of the terrorist attack, and the sense that the comedy somehow distilled the world we had lost. So I read it again to keep the joy of the dream alive. And since then I have been going through the comedies whenever I need a happiness fix. I would love to have been part of the audience Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote Love's Labor's Lost. There are, in effect, two teams of extravagant talkers--the King of Navarre and his courtiers on one side, the Princess of France with her ladies on the other. The King and his followers have just taken an oath to forswear contact with women for three years when the Princess comes on some diplomatic mission; the four males fall immediately in love with the four females, for whom they are no match in the game of zinging witticisms past one another's ears.
Shakespeare's audience had to be able to disentangle quadruple puns as the lines flew back and forth. It is a comedy in which, as one of the male characters remarks, "Jack does not get his Jill." Everyone has to take a respite of a year and a day before they will be ready to face one another again.
I met a real life Jill not long ago--Jill Davis--who has just published a comic novel called Girl's Poker Night. Her book too has a team of daunting women, pessimistically looking for love. Her heroine, Ruby Capote, might well have made good material for the Princess of France's team of ladies who use language as a blood sport, though mostly she talks to the reader, since the males are more or less hopeless. In the end she opts for happiness with a man who is far from good enough for her. But--as she observes--"Happy endings are not for cowards."
Here, for those who frown on such light reading for these heavy times, is a word from Hegel:
"The modern world has developed a type of comedy which is truly comical and truly poetic. The keynote is good humor, assured and careless gaiety, despite all failure and misfortune, exuberance and the audacity of a fundamentally happy craziness, folly, and idiosyncrasy in general."
It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but penetrated through and through by our historical situation. Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images. For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era conscious of itself through his art.
German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art. Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside his images to realize the violence to which they refer.
Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse, than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art. It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism, and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time. The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic Republic.
It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist, the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in 1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction. They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its owner sings.
Before talking about individual works, let me register another peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas. Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in 1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.
The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962. Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné, which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre. Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement. He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze. Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In 1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary, everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once. Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in 1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling. Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction, especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.
The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example, photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was he saying in these images?
And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs. But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death. And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist, in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.
The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes, automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966 Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.
Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality. These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values. But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the past several weeks.
By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world, the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty. But it says something about human passion that the distinction between figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist. Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the terribleness of history.
There is an overall disposition to approach each Whitney Biennial as a State of the Art World Address in the form of an exhibition, organized by a curatorial directorate, presenting us with a reading, more or less objective, of what visual culture has been up to in the preceding two years. It is widely appreciated that on any given occasion, the directorate will be driven by enthusiasms and agendas that compromise objectivity. So there has sprung up a genre of what we might call Biennial Criticism, in which the organizers are taken to task for various distortions, and when these have been flagrant, as in the 1993 or, to a lesser degree, the 1995 Biennial, the critics almost speak as one. Everyone knew, in 1993, that a lot of art was being made that took the form of aggressively politicized cultural criticism, but the Biennial made it appear that there was very little else, and it had the effect of alienating the viewers by treating them as enemies. Again, everyone recognized in 1995 that artists were exploring issues of gender identity--but there was a question of whether these preoccupations were not overrepresented in what was shown. Anticipating the barrage of critical dissent, the Whitney pre-emptively advertised the 2000 Biennial as the exhibition you love to hate, making a virtue of adversity. But Biennials and Biennial Criticism must be taken as a single complex, which together provide, in the best way that has so far evolved, as adequate a picture as we are likely to get of where American artistic culture is at the moment. The Whitney deserves considerable credit for exposing itself to critical onslaughts from various directions in this periodic effort to bring the present art world to consciousness. Art really is a mirror in which the culture gets to see itself reflected, but it requires a fair amount of risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of clarity.
As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002, though I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with a good many of the artists whose work has been selected. This unfamiliarity can even be taken as evidence that Rinder's selection corresponds to the general profile of art-making today.
It is almost as though any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists in their 30s and early 40s who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals. A great Biennial could have been put together using older artists with international reputations, but somehow emphasizing the young does not seem a curatorial caprice. It is increasingly an art-world premise that what is really happening is to be found among the young or very young, whose reputations have not as yet emerged. A painter who taught in California told me that he was constantly pressed, by dealers and collectors, to tell them who among the students was hot. So as long as it resembles a fairly large show of MFA students graduating from a major art school--as Biennial 2002 mostly does--a quite representative Biennial can be put together of artists whose work is hardly known at all. Somehow, if it were widely known, it would not have been representative.
Art today is pretty largely conceptual. It is not Conceptual Art in the narrow sense the term acquired when it designated one of the last true movements of late Modernism, in which the objects were often negligible or even nonexistent, but rather in the sense that being an artist today consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it. Advanced art schools do not primarily teach skills but serve as institutes through which students are given critical support in finding their own way to whatever it takes to make their ideas come to something. This has been the case since the early 1970s.
It is amazing how many young people want to be artists today. I was told that there are about 600 art majors in a state university in Utah--and there will be at least that many applicants for perhaps twenty places in any one of the major MFA programs, despite a tuition equal to that for law or business school. Few will find teaching positions, but their main impulse is to make art, taking advantage of today's extreme pluralism, which entails that there are no antecedent prohibitions on how their art has to be. Every artist can use any technology or every technology at once--photography, video, sound, language, imagery in all possible media, not to mention that indeterminate range of activities that constitute performances, working alone or in collaboratives on subjects that can be extremely arcane.
Omer Fast shows a two-channel video installation with surround sound about Glendive, Montana, selected because it is the nation's smallest self-contained television market. Who would know about this? Or about Sarah Winchester, who kept changing the architecture of her house in San Jose, California, because she felt she was being pursued by victims of the Winchester rifle, which her late husband manufactured, which Jeremy Blake chose as the subject of a 16-millimeter film, augmented by drawings and digital artworks transferred to DVD? I pick these out not as criticism but as observations. They exemplify where visual culture is today.
Initially I felt that painting was somewhat underrepresented, but on reflection I realize that there is not much of the kind of easel painting done now that makes up one's composite memory of Biennials past. What I had to accept was that artists today appropriate vernacular styles and images--graffiti, cartoons, circus posters and crude demotic drawing. Artists use whatever kinds of images they like. Much as one dog tells another in a New Yorker cartoon that once you're online, no one can tell you're a dog, it is less and less easy to infer much about an artist's identity from the work.
At least three graduate students in a leading art school I visited not long ago choose to paint like self-taught artists. The self-taught artist Thornton Dial Senior appeared in Biennial 2000, but his contribution did not look like anyone's paradigm of outsider art, so no one could have known that it was not by an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design or CalArts. There are some quilts in Biennial 2002 by Rosie Lee Tomkins, who is Afro-American, as we can tell from items in her bibliography (Redesigning Cultural Roots: Diversity in African-American Quilts). Since this year's catalogue does not identify artists with reference to their education, we don't know--nor does it matter--whether Tomkins is self-taught. But it is entirely open to white male graduate students to practice quilt-making as their art if they choose to.
Whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook. Everything is available to everyone--the distinctions between insider and outsider, art and craft, fine art and illustration, have altogether vanished. I have not yet seen a Biennial with the work of Sophie Matisse or George Deem in it, both of whom appropriate the painting styles of Vermeer and other Old Masters, but they express the contemporary moment as well as would an artist who drew Superman or The Silver Surfer. Mike Bidlo--also not included--has been painting Jackson Pollocks over the past few years. In a way I rather admire, Biennial 2002 presents us with a picture not just of the art world but of American society today, in an ideal form in which identities are as fluid and boundaries as permeable as lifestyles in general.
The openness to media outside the traditional ones of painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture has made it increasingly difficult to see everything on a single visit in the recent Biennials, and this is particularly so in Biennial 2002. But just seeing the things that can be taken in on such a visit may not give the best idea of what is really happening in the art world. Biennial 2002 includes the work of eight performance artists or teams of performance artists, for example, and theirs may be among the most revealing work being done today; but you will have to read about their work in the catalogue, since the performances themselves do not take place on the premises of the museum. I'll describe three artists whose most striking work is performance, since together they give a deeper sense of visual culture than we might easily get by looking at the objects and installations in the museum's galleries.
Let's begin with Praxis--a performance collaborative formed in 1999 that consists of a young married couple, Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey. On any given Saturday afternoon, Praxis opens the East Village storefront that is its studio and home to passers-by. The ongoing performance, which they title The New Economy, consists in offering visitors any of four meaningful but undemanding services from the artists: a hug, a footbath, a dollar or a Band-Aid, which comes with the kind of kiss a mommy gives to make it all better. Praxis draws upon a fairly rich art history. Its services are good examples of what were considered actions by Fluxus, an art movement that has frequently figured in this column. Fluxus originated in the early 1960s as a loose collective of artists-performers-composers who were dedicated, among other things, to overcoming the gap between art and life. The movement drew its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Zen--and from the visionary figure George Maciunas, who gave it its name. It is a matter for philosophers to determine when giving someone a hug is a piece of art--but an important consideration is that as art it has no particular connection to the art market, nor is it the sort of thing that is easily collected. And it requires no special training to know how to do it.
There is something tender and affecting in Praxis's ministrations, which connects it to a second art-historical tradition. It has, for example, a certain affinity to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who piled up candies in the corner of a gallery for people to help themselves to, or to the art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which largely consists in feeding people fairly simple dishes, which he cooks for whoever comes along. Praxis's art is comforting, in much the way that Tiravanija's work is nurturing. The people who enter Praxis's storefront are not necessarily, as the artists explain, seeking an art experience. Neither are those who eat Tiravanija's green curry in quest of gastronomic excitement. The artists set themselves up as healers or comfort-givers, and the art aims at infusing an increment of human warmth into daily life. There was not a lot of that in Fluxus, but it has become very much a part of art today, especially among younger artists. The moral quality of Praxis belongs to the overall spirit of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which recently emerged as an art scene. On one of my visits there, a gallerist asked me what I thought of the scene and I told him I found it "lite," not intending that as a criticism. "We want to remain children," he told me. The artists there could not have been nicer, and this seems generally the feeling evoked by Biennial 2002. It is the least confrontational Biennial of recent years.
There is, for example, not much by way of nudity, though that is integral to the performances of the remarkable artist Zhang Huan, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Praxis. Zhang Huan was expelled from China in 1998. His work fuses certain Asiatic disciplines laced with appropriations from various Western avant-gardes. In each of his performances, Zhang Huan's shaved head and bare, wiry body is put through trials in which, like a saint or shaman, the performer displays his indifference to injury. His nakedness becomes a universal emblem of human vulnerability. There is a remarkable, even stunning, poetry in these performances, and they feel in fact like religious ordeals, like fasting or mortification, undertaken for the larger welfare. I have seen the film of an amazing performance, Dream of the Dragon, in which Zhang Huan is carried by assistants into the performance space on a large forked branch of a tree, like an improvised cross. The assistants cover his body with a kind of soup they coat with flour. A number of leashed family dogs are then allowed to lick this off with sometimes snarling canine voracity.
The performances of William Pope.L, which involve great physical and, I imagine, psychological stress, stand to Zhang Huan's as West stands to East. His crawl pieces, of which he has done perhaps forty since 1978, perform social struggle, as he puts it. His contribution to Biennial 2002, titled The Great White Way, will involve a twenty-two-mile crawl up Broadway, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, and will take five years. In a film excerpt, Pope.L is seen in a padded Superman suit and ski hat, a skateboard strapped to his back, negotiating a segment of the crawl. Sometimes he uses the skateboard as a dolly, but that seems hardly less strenuous than actual crawling. Pope.L is African-American, and somehow one feels that crawling up the Great White Way has to be seen as a symbolic as well as an actual struggle. But it also has the aura of certain ritual enactments that require worshipers to climb some sacred stairway on their knees, or to achieve a required pilgrimage by crawling great distances to a shrine.
Since foot-washing, which is one of Praxis's actions, is widely recognized as a gesture of humility as well as hospitality in many religious cultures, the three performance pieces bear out one of Rinder's observations that a great many artists today are interested in religious subjects. He and I participated in a conversation organized by Simona Vendrame, the editor of Tema Celeste, and published in that magazine under the title New York, November 8, 2001. We were to discuss the impact of September 11 on American art. With few exceptions, the art in Biennial 2002 was selected before the horror, though it is inevitable that it colors how we look at the exhibits.
In a wonderful departure, five commissioned Biennial works are on view in Central Park, including an assemblage of sculptures in darkly patinated bronze by Kiki Smith, of harpies and sirens. These figures have human heads on birds' bodies, and as they are exhibited near the Central Park zoo, they suggest evolutionary possibilities that were never realized. When I saw pictures of them, however, I could not help thinking they memorialized those who threw themselves out of the upper windows of the World Trade Center rather than endure incineration. I had read that one of the nearby schoolchildren pointed to the falling bodies and said, "Look, the birds are on fire!"
I don't really yet know what effect on art September 11 actually had, and it might not be obvious even when one sees it. The artist Audrey Flack, whose work is in the Biennial, told me that as soon as she could get away from the television screen, she wanted only to paint fishing boats at Montauk. A good bit of what Rinder has selected could as easily as not have been done in response to the terrible events, but he said that he had sensed some sort of change taking place in artists' attitudes well before September 11: "What I was finding over and over again was artists saying things to me like 'Well, to be honest, what I'm really doing is searching for the truth' or 'What matters the most to me is to make the most honest statement I possibly can.'" I don't think one can easily tell from looking at the art that it embodies these virtues, any more than one could tell from Flack's watercolors that they constituted acts of healing for her. But that is what they mean and are.
One consequence of art's having taken the direction it has is that there is not always a lot to be gained from what one sees without benefit of a fair amount of explanation. Biennial 2002 has been very generous in supplying interpretive help. Some people have complained that the wall labels go too far in inflecting the way one is supposed to react to the work, but I am grateful for any help I can get; I found the wall texts, like the catalogue, indispensable. And beyond that, you can hear what the artists thought they were doing by listening to recorded comments on the rented electronic guides. I cannot see enough of the work of Kim Sooja, a Korean artist who works with traditional fabrics from her culture. But her statements contribute to the metaphysics of fabric--to what Kierkegaard calls the meaning of the cloth--and are worth thinking about in their own right.
You will encounter Kim Sooja's Deductive Object, consisting of Korean bedcovers placed over tables at the zoo cafe in Central Park, just north of Kiki Smith's mythological animals and just south of a towering steel tree by Roxy Paine. Since Central Park has been opened up to temporary exhibitions, I would like to urge a longstanding agenda of my own. I cannot think of anything better capable of raising the spirits of New York than installing a beautiful projected piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which, as always with their work, will not cost the city a nickel. They envision a series of tall gates, posted at regular intervals all along the main walkway of the park. Hanging from each will be saffron-colored strips of cloth that will float above us as we follow the path for as long as we care to--an undulating roof, since the strips are just long enough to cover the distance between the gates. The whole world will look with exaltation upon this work, which will express the same spirituality and truth that today's artists, if Lawrence Rinder is right, have aspired to in their work. And billions of dollars will flow into our economy as they pilgrim to our city.
I think the art world is going to be the way it is now for a very long time, even if it is strictly unimaginable how artworks themselves will look in 2004. Meanwhile, I think well of Biennial 2002, though I can have written of only a few of the 113 artists that make it up. You'll have to find your own way, like the artists themselves. Take my word that it is worth the effort. That's the best Biennial Criticism is able do in the present state of things.