Careerism and Hype Amidst the Image Haze

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The decade is half over, but already one begins to feel the peculiar sensation of looking back on the art of the '80s. How, in America, have its frequent miseries balanced out against its episodic splendors? The end of a century -- and even more, the end of a millennium -- brings anxiety with it: the unavoidable doubts and mannerisms of the fin de siecle, when every kind of stylistic bubble rises to the cultural surface, swells and bursts with a soft plop and a whiff, while marsh lights flicker and the cultural promoters croak their Aristophanic chorus. The SoHo Tar Pits: heaven for the market, purgatory (or limbo, anyway) for judgment.

Today more than ever, the buzz word among American collectors is "interesting." These four bland syllables are in fact highly coded.

The earlier word was "quality," whose utterance was meant to mark off a given artwork from the swarm of others and confirm the precision of a collector's taste. Interesting has the opposite effect. It suspends judgment, covers the rear, and defends the vacuum-cleaner habits of a cultural mass market without precedent in art history. It states, with a sort of coy defiance, that buying this, uh, thang may not be a mistake, even though its owner does not know what to say about it. It acknowledges that by the time thoughtful aesthetic judgment is passed -- a distant prospect, given the promotional state of too much American art criticism -- the price has trebled, the boat has sailed, the artist has turned 31, and it is now time to chatter about "contemporary masterpieces," meaning formerly "interesting" art that, after four years, carries a $20,000 to $50,000 price tag.

The temple of the "interesting," the crammed pantheon of the briefly new, is the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the 1985 version of which closed on Sunday. The importance of the biennial lies in the absence of other exhibitions that do the same job. It is a salon, though a very biased one (it scants realist painting, for instance, in favor of more nominally "advanced" styles), and as such it is the one regular national survey of American art held by a major U.S. museum. It pretends to be plain reportage, but it is nothing of the sort -- art-world pressures on it run too deep for that. Still, it serves as an index to the current scene and holds a mirror of sorts up to American painting.

Despite a smattering of mature and serious work, this year's biennial was generally agreed to be the worst in living memory. The six curators seemed to have their neural nets patched directly into Manhattan's East Village, that journalists' playpen of urban gentrification, which in the '80s is replacing SoHo as the city's art-based boomtown, its Montmartre of the Neo. There is a small deposit of serious East Village art, but none was represented at the Whitney.

What finds favor here is young, loud and, except in its careerism, invincibly dumb. It wants to be winsomely outrageous as a form of ingratiation. Its mood is claustrophobic because its sense of history (i.e., anything that happened before Warhol, except for kitsch surrealism) is nil.

Because its artists draw badly and compose worse, they simply doodle until the canvas is full, making wacky parodies of "all-over" composition. They like space-cadet imagery, sieved through childhood memories of the tail-finned and Lurexed '50s. They are chirpy and cheery, or woozily pseudoromantic; or, if neither of these, then vacantly tough. Their work is all pose and no position. Thus, from Kenny Scharf's mural of Silly Putty aliens in a galactic landscape of squiggles and David Wojnarowicz's repulsive Attack of the Alien Minds, through the visual fatuities of Rodney Alan Greenblat and Jedd Garet, the biennial celebrated what its curators evidently took to be the mood of the moment: glitz, camp, childishness and art as fashion, served up with the usual parsley about "renewals" and "advances." This gunk is not even kitsch. And behind it lie untapped reserves of worse gunk, for thanks to universal art education and the American worship of creativity in the young, all gunk is a renewable resource.

Bad art isn't what it used to be, but what is it doing in a museum? Why does such aesthetic entropy pervade the biggest sales boom for "hot" new painting in American history?

There are several reasons, which interlock. One was the postwar baby boom, whose mass, having moved through the art schools like an antelope through a python, arrived in the art world at the end of the '70s. American art teaching swelled in the '60s and '70s. Every university had to have its art department, and that department had to be full. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design guesses that about 900 institutions offer fine-arts degree programs; its own 138 member schools had 45,000 students in the fall of 1982, of whom some 8,500 graduated with B.F.A. degrees in the spring of '83. So the annual output of all American art schools is probably around 35,000 graduates. Significantly, no one seems to know the exact figures entailed in this unprecedented glut of artists.

The impact of the '60s and '70s on American art training has yet to be fully assessed, and when it is, the results will not be reassuring. They will show a pattern of indifferent teachers (painters doing it for survival) serving institutions that, for fear of a drop in enrollments, disliked failing anyone and were none too picky about the students' motives for being there in the first place.

Two pieties lay behind the softening. The first was a pseudotherapeutic regard for the "individuality" of tyros; the second, a distrust of "academic" practices, since these were what modernism had "overthrown." High on playpen radicalism, the '60s brought a massacre of plaster casts and a general winding down of life drawing in most, though not all, American schools. Yet it is obvious by now that all the great draftsmen of the modernist era, from Seurat to Picasso, from Beckmann to De Kooning, were grounded in academic processes and could no more have done without them than a plane can do without a landing strip. Hence the paradox: a figurative revival partly spearheaded by the poorest generation of draftsmen in American history.

So the art world is overcrowded, and overcrowding means competition. It reaches extremes in Manhattan, where perhaps 90,000 artists live and work, providing the art-dealing system with a large proletariat from which trends can be condensed at will. But the struggle for visibility is intense from Maine to Albuquerque, and careerism, once a guilty secret, has become one of the art world's main texts. We have at last reached the state of mind envisioned by Samuel Butler more than 100 years ago in Erewhon, where students are examined in the prices fetched by leading pictures of the previous 50 or 100 years, because the artist "is a dealer in pictures, and it is as important for him to learn how to adapt his wares to the market . . . as it is for him to be able to paint the picture." How many students today would even recognize this as satire?

There has never been such an inflated market for hot, young and new American art -- or, because of the short attention span of many collectors, such a labile one. Thus, young artists are less disposed to accept any ideal of slow maturation. This makes them unusually vulnerable to fashion and prone to seize whatever eye-catching stylistic device they can, no matter how sterile it may be in the long run. It also gets them stuck in typified gestures. But by then, with luck, they have hit.

There are many careers of this sort. Among their prototypes is the former subway artist and present disco decorator Keith Haring, 27, with his thin doodles of barking dogs and radioactive babies. Another is Jean-Michel Basquiat, 24, much hyped as a sort of art-world Eddie Murphy and hence especially popular with Los Angeles collectors, his untutored and zappy scrawls routinely praised for their "energy." (This anxious hope for signs of energy is a sure index of cultural flabbiness.) But for postgraffiti art the writing is already on the wall, and such careers, rolling in their limos to oblivion, remind one of Robert Graves' Epitaph on an Unfortunate Artist:

He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:

This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid,

So in the end he could not change the tragic habits

This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.*

Fashion, however, is what the audience has on its mind, along with myths of past glory. The new mass public for art has been raised on distorted legends of heroic modernism: the myth of the artist as demiurge, from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock. Its expectations have been buoyed by 20 years of self- fulfilling gush about art investment. It would like live heroes as well. But it wants them to be like heroes on TV, fetishized, plentiful and acquiescent. If Pollock was John Wayne, the likes of Haring 'n' Basquiat resemble those two what's-their-names on Miami Vice: cute cops, a designer avant-garde whose "newness" has all the significance of a goat-cheese pizza.

Americans once tended to treat high art as a refuge from mass culture. Let Hollywood exude whatever schlock it wanted; let the Box leak its eight hours of imagery a day into the average viewer's skull -- there would always be the Manet or the Rothko in the museum to reorient the distracted eye. The demands (and rewards) of painting were one thing, those of mass media another.

For many people born after 1950, these assumptions seem haughty, obsolete and no longer binding. Not only the fantasies but some of the ways of seeing that lie behind much current American art are shaped and administered by TV. Obviously, a generation that has been glued to the electronic nipple of American kitsch from infancy, imbibing its ultrafast changes of images, its giggly cool, its fixation on celebrity and its horror of argument, will tend to produce a kind of art that is

centerless, devoid of any vision of nature or mastery of hand: at best a mere cultural reflection, at worst a lie.

One of the effects of an information-based culture, whose dominant form of social dreaming is TV, is to undercut the authority of historical models by reducing the audience's attention span and sorting out its art experience into smaller, more alienated, less structured units. As the crowd of artworks grows, each single one seems a bit weaker.

This draining of the sense of the masterpiece affects both present and past. It makes past art look ghostly and value-free, so that it can be quoted and ^ shuffled at will, without deference to the values it once embodied. Hence the postmodern assault on the chief form of classical modernist painting, abstract art. A general culture glut opens the present to a limitless eclecticism and disarms taste by making everything "interesting." And, as the critic Charles Newman argues in the most provocative book on this problem yet written by an American, The Post-Modern Aura, its net effect is inflation: the permeability the past has acquired is the natural ground of hype in the present.

A glutted, media-based eclecticism being the order of the day, artists shape their means to it. Their main "strategy" (how the art world loves military lingo!) is "appropriation," or image scavenging, a process somewhat different from the traditional ways in which Western art has always quoted other art. Images have been recycled within the fine-arts tradition almost since art began. The Cnidian Venus turns into a Boucher, an Ingres, a Matisse. Picasso runs 44 variations on Velasquez's Las Meninas. Always, art comes from other art, giving culture a vernacular of recurrent forms, which are reinvested with subtly or sharply different meanings. In this way, the artist connects himself to the living tissue of the past, legitimately claiming continuity.

Yet appropriation as practiced by Americans in the '80s is the exact reverse of this process. It presumes discontinuity. It is not a gesture of homage to an esteemed original. In fact it does not agree that any image has more authority than any other. It is a response to a culture of reproduction. Its posture is a melange of acquiescence and mild pessimism: acquiescence in the thick smog of images now dumped on the eye by "high" and "low" culture alike, pessimism about painting's ability to pierce or dispel it with authentically rooted meanings.

In the work of Robert Longo, 32, painting resolves itself as large-scale montage, like film itself -- a chilly, imposing screen of images. Works like National Trust, 1981, fluctuate between the catastrophically private (contorted figures that might come from a disco, or might just have been felled by thrombosis or a bullet) and the blandly public (the face of a building, rendered in aluminum and fiber-glass relief). Longo's art is rooted in the mid-'70s conjunction of performance art, minimalism and video; it tries both to engage one's sense of one's body through melodramatic or newsy postures and "heroic" figuration, and to achieve the enigmatic distance of minimal art. Sometimes, in attempting this odd synthesis, it gets clunky and overworked, but it also benefits from its own unappeasable paranoia. The size of Longo's voyeuristic images reflects the scale of his essential subject: the American consciousness industry, and the way it grouts every cranny in public life.

With other artists of Longo's age, there are two main patterns of appropriation. The first is literal copying with intent to "deconstruct" the original, as done by Sherrie Levine, 38. Levine rephotographs photos by "classic" figures like Walker Evans and does small, exact, curiously loving copies of paintings by noted early modernists like Kasimir Malevich or Arthur Dove. The aim is to make people think about the status of originality; the work has a real and precise, if muted, aesthetic dimension.

The second mode is eclectic quotation from the image-haze, like a distracted viewer spinning the TV dial. Its leading practitioner in the U.S., among those born after 1950, is David Salle, 32. His main compositional device, putting emblems over a tangle of "transparent" figures, came straight from late Francis Picabia and perhaps from Salle's German contemporary Sigmar Polke. There is also a strong debt to earlier James Rosenquist. Salle draws, or rather traces, awkwardly and flatly. His imagery mimics the nullifying influence of TV, its promotion of derisive inertia as the hip way of seeing. Underneath, a congealed eroticism, derived from the misogynies of soft porn and the misty cliches of romance-illustration; on top, a disconnected shuffle of high-art fragments and other visual flotsam. The effect is often harshly sexist and supercilious: porn-in-quotes garnished with irony, the yuppie market's dream.

Nobody could call Salle unfaithful to his sources (which are as often high art as mass media), and his paintings do tell a certain truth about the image- glutted conditions of seeing in the mid-'80s. That is to say, they bear signs of social meaning beneath their inert stylishness, and they exude a creepy sense of the disconnectedness of things. He has developed a way, as in Miner, 1984, of dissolving conventional images of conflict (the slumped miner of the title is a '30s icon of labor, as the outlines of Frank Lloyd Wright's mushroom columns from the S.C. Johnson building are, literally, "capital") and then working them back in layers of visual-verbal puns and allusions. Thus the brutally splintered cafe tabletops anchored to the painting's surface work both as echoes of the capitals and as suggestions (presented like comic- strip balloons) of the miner's thoughts of violence. Salle can be taken more seriously than the painter with whom he used to be paired, Julian Schnabel.

Truly bad art is always sincere, and there is a kind of forcible vulgarity, as American as a meatball hero, that takes itself for genius; Jacqueline Susann died believing she was the peer of Charles Dickens. "My peers," Schnabel told the New York Times last winter, "are the artists who speak to me: Giotto, Duccio, Van Gogh." Doubtless this list will change if he tries a ceiling, but Schnabel has never learned to draw; in graphic terms, his art has barely got beyond the lumpy pastiches of Max Beckmann and Richard Lindner he did as a student in Houston. The dull, uninflected megalomania of his kitsch- expressionist imagery (Sex, Death, God and Me) is rant, a bogus "appropriation" of profundity.

Yet the word neo-expressionism is misapplied to American art in the '80s. The marks that convey heaviness and heat -- turgid, lava-like floods of paint, fulgurous color, primitive and mythic imagery, and the like -- are, as any art student knows by now, conventional signs that can be (and usually are) manipulated as lightly and coldly as Coke bottles in a Warhol. In this republic, the "expressive" comes down to another form of pop art, retooled for an audience strung out on fictions of personal authenticity.

The best new painting being done by American artists whose careers have come into full focus in the '80s puts itself at a remove from such matters. To start, there are Neil Jenney, 39, and Brice Marden, 46. Jenney's career is long for his age -- he started exhibiting sculpture in the mid-1960s before turning to painting -- and his work is dense with critical thought. The look of his current paintings, when first experienced, is puzzling: impacted "views" of nature that are not really views at all, but icons concentrated by cropping and framing.

Jenney carries the traditional view-through-the-window idea of realist painting to an extreme. The frame is part of the work, and within it -- always a wide, heavily molded, dark construction, its inner edges toned so that a white glow seems to be emanating from the picture itself -- one catches a glimpse of, say, a broad horizon, a band of achingly pure and silent sky, the trunk of a pine. The frame becomes a prison for a sign of traditional vastness, the 19th century view of limitless America. But look closer and the ideal landscape is fatally cankered, the America of Natty Bumppo is no more: acid rain has stripped the needles off the pine, or a sinister cloud spreads upward from a distant ground zero. Technical perfection evokes a compromised world.

The only thing Marden's paintings have in common with Jenney's, apart from their intelligence, is the way their surfaces invite meditation. Marden is wholly an abstract painter, and the effect of his work hinges on the proportional intensities of blocks of color. He is a minimalist, but without the fierce abolitionism the word suggests.

The scheme of his recent work sounds simple: arrays of long, narrow panels, as in Green (Earth), 1983-84, locked together in silent T formations with infills. They suggest the absolute forms of classic architecture -- columns and lintels bathed in Aegean light. The extreme subtlety of Marden's color speaks of nature. It is mixed and layered, skin upon slow skin of pigment and oil, bearing a history of growth, submergence and mellowing, containing light the way a sheet of marble stores the heat of afternoon. Paintings like this are ideal landscapes, and their august stasis recalls Byron's line: "When elements to elements conform,/ And dust is as it should be."

Marden's work reminds one how silly was the death-of-abstract-art talk heard so much at the start of the '80s, as foolish as the death-of-painting cant in the '70s. Much of the work of younger American artists remains abstract, whether "decorative" (Alan Shields, Valerie Jaudon or the exuberant Judy Pfaff, whose manic, space-consuming constructions are hybrids of painting and sculpture) or more ostensibly rigorous in its aims, like that of Gary Stephan, 42. His paintings are like massive and vivid reflections on late cubism, especially the utopian "cubifying" abstraction of the 1920s, as practiced by such artists as Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky and Prampolini. They have the visionary character of ideal forms -- ovals, cones, circles, cubes -- moving in deep space, its depth contradicted by puzzling abutment and reflections that block the view, break the recession and direct the eye back to the richly painted surface. Another highly gifted artist in the area where abstraction hovers on the edge of figuration is Chicago-born Elizabeth Murray, 44. Since Frank Stella, American painting has been littered with shaped canvases, but Murray has brought a wonderful energy and flair to her use of this quintessentially late-modernist device. Her shaped panels are folded, superimposed, somewhere between collage, sculpture and origami. She wants them, as she says, "to feel as though I threw them against the wall and they came together with a purpose not that consciously controlled." The air of improvisation is deceptive. Murray has an exacting sense of the relations between internal drawing and silhouette. Sometimes, for this reason, a panel may look like an enlarged detail from a Juan Gris, and the near erotic friction of turning and rubbing shapes, rhythmically drawn, recalls early De Koonings like Pink Angels. Her work is continually enriched by allusions to the human body.

For some, the single most memorable painting in the biennial was a large, creamily impasted canvas by Terry Winters, Good Government, 1984. A favorite subject for Winters, 36, is the taxonomy of natural form among lower organisms such as shells, fungi and seed pods. He likes the innumerable rhymes between these shapes and the way they can be assembled to mimic human affairs and hierarchies. (Just what the relation between the peanut shapes and the bluish, galena-like crystals beneath them in Good Government may be, can only be guessed at; but it seems, in some indirect way, to be social rather than formal.) Winters' drawing, which owes something to the late Philip Guston and much more to Cy Twombly's rapturous scribbling, looks clumsy but is not, and his paint surface has a wonderful astuteness, lush and scratchy by turns, full of tactile surprises and shifts of gear, and never boring.

In a quite different way, an artist like Donald Sultan, 34, monumentalizes the detail or the small motif by inflating and solidifying it. Sultan's paintings have a congealed look, thanks to their peculiar technique. They are in effect shallow reliefs, cut from a thick magma of bitumen. Their slow air of deliberation favors emblems but works against narrative. Since Sultan likes narrative scenes -- forest blazes, naval guns firing, oilfield burn-offs -- the result is often perverse: essentially decorative art strained through a "tough" medium. When on his other main subject, still life, Sultan is a suave designer who can invest the profiles of his lemons and tulips with a tautness and elegance.

Part of the ambition of Robert Moskowitz, 50, has been to bring some of the polemical, stripped-down imagery from Newman and Still -- a cliff of paint, a primal stripe of color -- back into the domain of the figurative. In Moskowitz's big oil-pastel panels, the image may seem elusive, and it is, not because it is veiled but because it is reduced to a fragment: the blue silhouette of an arm holding a plate is not quickly identifiable as a part of Myron's Discobolos. In such paintings, as in his series of variations on the silhouette of Rodin's Thinker, Moskowitz plays an uneasy game as a mediator between "sublimity" and cliche. The famous object, impotently muscle-bound by traditions of cultural hype, is cut down to a mere recognition-silhouette and then resuscitated as painting. Moskowitz's vision is less ironic than bleakly epic. In Iceberg, 1984, which depicts a dreadful shard of whiteness on an equally dreadful blackness, his cult of the isolated fragment serves a schematized vision of landscape -- obstinate, grand and pessimistic.

Then there is Susan Rothenberg: not a new artist (her reputation has been growing since the mid-'70s, when her big paintings of silhouette horses first hove in sight) but one of extreme psychic power. Rothenberg, too, is a painter of the expressive fragment, the single sign that stands for parts of the body (a hand, a mouth) or individual figures so eroded by space, so scraped down to a state of muffled and miserable representation that they have no tactility left in them.

These paintings speak of emotional collapse -- implosion, almost -- and survival. Done with a severe palette (Rothenberg's excursions into color, in recent years, have been tentative), they have a hard grip on the eye. Of late, whole figures have reappeared in her work. By all rights, Green Ray, 1984, with its two capering figures in a lurid spotlight on a stage of some sort -- Teddy bears, or Mickey Mice, surmounted by human masks -- ought to look merely absurd; yet their forlorn hoofings imply unwelcome news about the state of being an artist.

In fact, despite the abysmal state of fashion and ephemera, some depictive art of the '80s in America is in fine shape. Those who doubt this might consult the current retrospective of the fluent, tantalizingly mysterious work of Jennifer Bartlett, 44, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. One might also adduce the small, concentrated paintings of Mark Innerst, 28, which inject photo-derived images of Great Tourist Views (colossi of Memnon in Egypt, the Hudson River landscape of the 19th century) with a remarkable feel for the subtleties of atmosphere.

Or one could cite the Texas artist John Alexander, 40. Despite occasional derailments into a sort of demonic cartooning, Alexander's spiky, haunted style is one of intense graphic vitality. He has revived cliches of ferocious nature and made them work in an absolutely authentic way. His Hobbesian sense of the world, the battle of all against all, extends from the swamps of Louisiana (populated by a tangled bestiary of paranoid deer, coons, foxes, bright-eyed, indifferent herons and fish-chomping alligators, glaring at one another like bikers on Methedrine) to the boardrooms of the Sunbelt. Thanks to a Baptist background, he also has a taste for the religious grotesque, which gets full play in Tintorettoesque machines like The Little Prince Prohibited from Polishing His Crown, 1984.

The work of Eric Fischl, 43, has a quite different tone. Fischl's subject is what has been called the crisis of American identity, the failure of the American dream. From this he is assembling a wholly distinctive vision of the white middle-class social fabric, relentlessly ironic and, if not affectionate, then certainly fixated. It is packed with family tension, sexual farce and erotic misery.

Fischl country is a place of shag carpets lit by the desolate glare of TV sets, of king-size beds seen as altars of suburban promiscuity, and blue swimming pools that slyly parody David Hockney's less tainted vision of a Californian Eden. It smells of unwashed dog, Bar-B-Q lighter fluid and sperm. It is permeated with voyeurism and resentful, secretive tumescence -- a theater of adolescent tension and adult anonymity. Fischl paints this world of failed intimacies with conviction and narrative grip: at best, his drawing is beautifully concise (though marred, at present, by too many botched and hasty passages), and his use of cinematic framing and lighting conventions gives his scenes a subtle push-pull of vividness and artificiality. This artist is clearly set for the long haul, into the 21st century.

By then (or so one must surmise, through the haze of fin de siecle uncertainties) the whole picture of American art in the '80s will have altered; some popular reputations will seem as obviously ridiculous -- though as sociologically interesting -- as the former cult of such late 19th century artists as Bougereau or Hans Makart. But whether there is any real genius in the offing is a moot point. America has no major younger expressionist artist, like Germany's Anselm Kiefer or England's Frank Auerbach. Though it has some gifted realist painters, notably William Bailey and Neil Welliver, none can be said to compare, in point of intensity and unsparing intelligence, with England's Lucien Freud or Spain's Antonio Lopez Garcia.

The problem is not merely that the upper middle class's voracious enthusiasm for art of almost any kind "coincides" with the inflation of minor talents into major ones, of mere promise into claims on art history. It is that the one has produced the other. In the process, too many painters have been left without a middle ground between the miseries of oblivion and the stresses of cultural stardom. Hence fame depends, to a grotesque and absurd extent, on painters' ability to excite envy among their rivals, and the sense of common reciprocity that pervaded the art world up to ten years ago is drying out. Where it still exists, it is more to be found west of the Hudson, in Houston or Chicago or San Francisco, than in Manhattan itself. The moral economy of the art world has been so distorted by hype and premature careerism that a serious artist in New York must now face the same unreality and weightlessness as a serious actor in Los Angeles.

It is as though the conditions that produce great art -- patience, internalization, ruthless self-criticism and an engagement with the authoritative past that goes deeper than the mere ransacking of one's culture for quotable motifs -- have been bleached out of current painting by the glare of its own success. And this success depends as much on the eager passivity of consumers as on the opportunism to which America, besotted with cultural therapy, consigns its talents. No culture needs a hegemony to produce its quota of strong artists; such people do continue to emerge in the U.S. But there is no doubt that the American dominance in world painting that seemed a fact of life 20 years ago is finished, and no effort of marketing can revive it.

FOOTNOTE: *Reprinted by permission of Robert Graves.