BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP


I find it hard to imagine painters so entrenched in an idiosyncratic position that they would come to blows over a disagreement about the way a picture was organized. It is difficult to comprehend a surge in blood pressure brought on because a canvas was painted flat on a floor or table, the artist hunched over, or whether it was made on an easel or wall, the noble practitioner standing upright and erect. The significance of the mark vs. the desire to eradicate the presence of the hand and a lot of the rest of the sort of issues that dominate a documentary such as Emile de Antonio's 1972 Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene 1940-1970 are a little baffling to an artist who has come of age at a time when it is difficult to sympathize with the negative results of years of past ideological conflict. Why would one need to choose between poles? Would it not be better to have a picture, say, painted both horizontally and vertically, that is to say, a canvas where both of these divergent points of view are united rather than at each other's throats?

Already during the early years of last century, the German Art Historian Theodor Hetzer realized the hegemonic approach that had previously characterized his profession got in the way of the focused attention necessary to properly study his subject matter. Instead, he chose to conceive his practice as the examination of changes and shifts in our temperament and spirit. In “The Creative Union of Classical and Northern Elements in the High Renaissance”, written during the NAZI ramp-up to World War II, among his many aims there was, he felt, an imperative to dispel the notion that the Gothic style, born as it was as an antithesis to antiquity, must also by necessity have existed in opposition to the movements which followed. While a great deal of Hetzer's motivation was to promote the ongoing importance and influence of Classical attitudes as the dynamic motivational driver at work in later art, in so doing he offered one of his more significant contributions to the overall discussion of aesthetic development: the surprisingly intuitive insight that styles do not exist as fixed oppositional polarities, but constantly influence and live through one another. There was, he reminded us, no Gothic expression without the corollary ideal he describes as Classical inertia.

In so doing, Hetzer significantly departed from earlier northern European art writers such as Great Britain's John Ruskin who, less than a half century earlier, sought to equate Christian, social, ideological and ethical positions with specific cultural styles. Ruskin, particularly in The Stones of Venice, exerted a notable effort in his attempt to establish the moral superiority of the Gothic influence over the classicism of southern European art. Hetzer could not have disagreed more strongly.  It is not that the German Art Historian was immune from Ruskin's flashes of patriotic, nationalistic, ideological fervor. Hetzer, himself, is constantly wrestling with what he describes as “the impassioned outbursts of the Germanic world.” Northern European art was described as a “raging movement”, or as the “ecstatic vision” of the “free-playing force” of a "barbaric" spirit. It is repeatedly referred to as a sense of “infinite space” where everything is constantly “bursting” forth and “shimmering”. To Hetzer, however, these attributes are largely considered unflattering; the result of a lack of focus and ADD sloppiness he finds troubling. When Hetzer describes the art of antiquity as a “great beauty” that “exudes something very quiet, devout, and even dreamlike and remote,” he is offering his highest complement.

For Hetzer, the “High Renaissance” was where elements of the restless Gothic temperament ultimately found sympathy with classical ideas. We do not have to believe, as he did, that the Southern spirit is the great motivator behind every subsequent progressive aesthetic shift to appreciate the notion put forth that history is not made up of a linear succession of ideas in which one period such as the Baroque, say, is eclipsed by the onset of the next (here the more morally driven righteousness of the Neo-Classical or Enlightenment period), but is a much more complicated and nuanced tangle of influences that perpetually remain in some kind of aggressive, direct negotiation with each other.

Modern attitudes may or may not singularly account for the shift from the placid stasis Hetzer traces through antiquity to the ever more complex evocations of nature and psychology brought about by the use of the increasingly dynamic forms which boldly asserted themselves over the course of the Renaissance. Such oblique meanderings, in any case, get in the way of any worthwhile takeaway from Hetzer who had so much more, in terms of formal acuity, to offer on the subjects he excelled at, including Giotto, Raphael and Dürer. Art historical styles, he wanted us to know, are not somehow the product of immaculate conception. To anyone who cares to look a little more closely —whether you are examining a church, sculpture, painting, movie, vernacular architecture, comics, kitsch decoration, antiques of all sorts, or, as far as cultural objects are concerned, anything else imaginable— whichever direction you turn, elements from previous periods are always amply present and on display.

If only Hetzer had conceived of a more secular version of “spirit” that could have transcended old world occidental politics to include the possibility that it is the creative force that distinguishes powerful art wherever we may find it, but it is, unfortunately, a particularly fiery, and wild “temperament” he feels it necessary to check as supposedly alien to the proud monuments of Mediterranean antiquity, not to mention art in the rest of the known universe. Ultimately, Hetzer's overall critical philosophy fails to take the next expected step, to see that the most charming edifice is ugly if you look too closely, and hence, terms such as “beauty” and the corollary roller-coaster terror of the “sublime”, although their affects are very different, are not necessarily, except in the most abstracted academic sense, opposing positions, but, fortuitously, the one is, at least as often as not, more accurately complementary to the other.

One of the more striking features of Painters Painting, the documentary about the New York School mentioned earlier, is that the various movements that make up that period are presented alongside each other without the accompanying antagonism you might expect from such a diverse group of practitioners in such close quarters. With a little foresight, the subtitle could easily have been “Classic U.S. Abstraction”. Abstract Expressionist, Pop, Minimal, and Color Field painters, among other canonical players such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, are featured separately, still in the pink of their youth, without the least bit of dissonance between them. Clearly they all have different opinions about art —different dogs in the fight, so to speak— and are all separately dedicated to their respective allegiances, but what emerges are the similarities among them rather than their differences. Rauschenberg can (as he drinks himself into a stupor) generically criticize Abstract Expressionist painters for wasting time feeling sorry for themselves, but what quickly becomes apparent are the shared terms of endearment.

If the problem Abstract Expressionism faced was that the epic, Romantic space it created was always undermined by the accompanying discussion of the way paint was applied —whether the marks were expressive, or automatic, etc.— it became difficult not to see the movements which followed as a response to exactly these same issues, albeit in different ways. In each, there was presented a possible alternative to mark-making and its relationship to scale. Whether with Wilhelm de Kooning's use of ridiculously large brushes as a distancing mechanism, or Warhol's silkscreen, in each, it was partly a problem of how to reconsider the hand in a highly industrialized culture. In other words, a problem of how and for what reason to apply paint. Rather than the expected clash of polemical camps, what you get is a bit of mild quibbling over the theatrics of Duchamp's legacy from the most expected quarters (read: Clement Greenberg's aversion to anything Pop, even Claes Oldenburg!), thankfully, largely overshadowed by what are otherwise revealing first hand accounts of the various biases toward space and application held by some of the main artist practitioners from that period.

The more we give up on historical categorizations, the apparent irony is how much more liberally the terms get tossed around. Even a good Art Historian like Hetzer, I am guessing, would have had a difficult time keeping up with the subtle shifts in the predominance of one stylistic impulse over another. And the same should be said for those of us who call ourselves artists. Like classic rock, the works and attitudes documented in Painters Painting are already all considered “classic”. These days, in fact, we use “old school” (hip hop), or “classic” (rock) all the time. And, not only to designate a prior period that represents a high-water bench mark or gold standard, but also to describe the kind of approach we take in our own work. We can say “my work is old-school” (in fact, favor “old-school” over “new-school”) or casually call anything that vaguely alludes to a certain style/period we like as “classic”. If we want to show off a little we can even claim our own work displays Baroque, Gothic, or Rococo attributes, perhaps all three at once. We know that there are Romantic and classical (e.g., Palladian) aspects to modernity. If you look, the evidence abounds. The trick, as I see it, is not to attempt to work within some notion of the existing context (postmodern mishmash must follow classic U.S. high water mark by totally relativizing the painting surface, say, based on specious academic and ideological claims), but to try and get entirely past a notion of progress and rediscover the power of art —that is to say, what art is actually capable of and good at (which is not everything).

© Daniel Mendel-Black, Los Angeles, CA, June 2014, originally published in the LAMOA zine.