March 13, 2007
by Norman Fischer | January 10, 2007 at 3:29 PM
Abbot's Journal Vol 57 January 10, 2007 Charlotte's Way
Went to the new Modern (where I saw Koons' famous, but really not so terribly impressive, three basketballs suspended in water in a glass case). What an odd experience! The whole perplexing lunacy of what art is, or what anyone thinks it is. On display in this new, outrageously expensive, post-modern space, open so that in one room you can see many other rooms and on one floor many other floors (as if, acknowledging there's no landscape-gazing in New York, so the mind's confined, one's got to create — it begins to make sense in the logic of New York space and mind — indoor landscapes, heroic indoor views) the great works of Modernism, the ground-breaking works, the ones you see in all the art history textbooks. The Picassos, the Braques, the Matisses. The Pollacks, de Koonings, Rothkos, etc. But there are so many of them, so close together, and so familiar, that you actually can't see them, you rush by, it's almost too much. Brings me back to Benjamin's "aura" surrounding art works, and how the endless reproduction of images affects that sense of aura, In fact, it reduces the image to celebrity status, so it becomes impossible really to look at it. As I ran through the Museum the few things that interested me were the things I knew less well — the Rauschenberg "combines" that had stuff stuck onto the canvas (like Keifer — and this technique had been used already much earlier, by the Cubists), especially his famous bed, an actual pillow, quilt, etc pasted onto the canvas and splashed with paint. What impressed me was the boldness and grace of the execution of the piece (opposite of Koons' basketballs, which are mostly a great idea), R's sure-handedness with the materials. He seemed to have been very serious about it all, exploring the materials and, hands on, what painting might be, not just trying to shock somebody or wax philosophical. Some statement by him about working in the space between reality and art, an engagement. Seemingly no mystical or mythical material behind it — as you find in other artists, like Kiki Smith (whose show at the Whitney I saw), Keifer, Matthew Barney etc. Just working, exploring what's to hand. I was surprised at some of the earlier, pre-action Pollacks which were also good in the same old-fashioned way: that is, though abandoning polite notions of beauty creating anyway something quite beautiful in that it achieves a harmony of expression and form. According to Peter Burger, the characteristics of the true historical avant-garde are 1) that it violates this sense of the harmony of whole and part and 2) that it's essentially a revolt against art, wanting to destroy art as a cultural artifice apart from life, and return art to life. So there's an essentially political element here, a protest against art as the exclusive province of the sophisticated classes. In this second point the avant-garde of course completely fails; rather than breaking art down, it gets folded into the pre-existing art establishment; yet it nevertheless creates a break in the tradition, a re-doing of the aesthetic rules. And certainly there is a big difference between post-modern art (that references and can't but take into account the avant-garde) and modernism (that still bases itself on "art" as something the romantic, heroic, misunderstood artist confronts and conquers). So it was odd to be in room after room of this stuff, each containing maybe half a billion dollars worth of paint and canvas. How can that make any sense? Looking at the pictures and at the people passing through, I reflected that any of one the people — conceived of as a work, that exists, has shape and form, moves through space, thinks, suffers, loves — is worth infinitely more than any of the canvases, is infinitely more magical, includes infinitely more presence, aura, and yet any one of the people feels as if he or she is not much, of not so much significance and magnificence, while the canvases are universally considered to be important, priceless expressions of the human spirit. Sharing this thought later with Aron he said this is precisely the argument personal injury lawyers use: "We are asking for an award of $25 million. You may consider this a large amount of money, but you don't even bat an eyelash when you hear of a Picasso selling for $150 million." Or Koons basketballs selling for possibly more.