Leon Golub as a modernist

A quote by the painter Leon Golub, from Talking Art, a collection of interviews previously published in the UK’s excellent Art Monthly magazine. I like his characterisation of art as, in one way, some kind of sponge, which imprints itself with modern life, or is forced to be imprinted with it:

As far as I’m concerned, Modernism is the art of the modern world. That means that it is a world of relativity, of simultaneity and advanced media transmissions. The world of abstraction, but not the way the abstract artist thought of it, of condensations where essential material comes from all directions and gets condensed in unique formats, like thought-clusters. In other words, the big traditions of the past become pierced, porous, infected with other material; accretions are added to them and have their own peculiar condensations. I come to it from the fact that modern communications, habits of thinking, political events, mass societies, force us to have these kinds of conceptualisations. In art, to perceive anything that is going on in the modern world, you can’t have a narrow, realistic point of view. You have to be aware how peculiarly opaque and transparent all this material is. It is porous and yet over-determined, all at the same time. So it’s from those kinds of logics that I view myself a modernist.1

Later he says: “I want these paintings, if possible, to be open to the types of things that go on today. I want them to be open and porous because porous things absorb in an irregular fashion. I want the canvas surface itself to absorb all sorts of flickering fluctuations in phenomena that inflict themselves upon the surface between the spots and dashes and the glances.”2

  1. Golub, Leon (1985). The imag(in)ing of power. Interviewed by: Bird, Jon. In Bickers, Patricia and Wilson, Andrew, eds. Talking Art: Interviews with artists since 1976. London: Ridinghouse 2007, p.234.
  2. Ibid., p.237.

Meyer Schapiro and the cultural contradiction of Abstract Art

Time for a meaty quote about art, I think:

Paintings and sculptures, Schapiro pointed out, were ‘the last hand-made personal objects’ within a social order dominated by the division of labour. In a world in which the life of most individuals was subordinate to unsatisfying practical activity, ‘the object of art is, therefore, more passionately than ever before, the occasion of spontaneous or intense feeling’. Abstract art met this need best, because it refused ‘communication’ in a world in which communcation had been utterly instrumentalised and reduced to a notion of the most efficient stimulus to produce a given response. More than any other art, it corresponded to ‘the pathos of the reduction or fragility of the self within a culture that has become increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state’. Although it had no specific political message, abstract painting was the ‘domain of culture in which contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality [of our culture] is most obvious and often becomes tragic’.1,2

  1. HEMINGWAY, Andrew (2006), ‘Meyer Schapiro: Marxism, Science and Art’ in HEMINGWAY, Andrew ed., Marxism and Art History: From William Morris to the New Left, London: Pluto Press. p.142
  2. Quotes taken from SCHAPIRO, Meyer (1957), ‘Recent Abstract Painting’, in SCHAPIRO, Meyer (1978), Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Braziller. pp.217–8, 222–3, 224.

a commentary on a comment

Some friends of mine have been having a hard time understanding the comments I made about Jeff Jahn’s review of Bryan Schellinger’s show at Quality Pictures in Portland, Oregon. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to retrace my steps and provide an overview of the discussion, such as it is.

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WRITING—The Idea in Art

Picking up on another subject from the previous post, touched on in this quote:

. . . the [late nineteenth-century] avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society.1

What’s interesting to me, upon re-reading that passage, is the denigration of ideas as ‘infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society’, which is precisely (it seems to me) where certain strands of conceptual art took art in the late ’60’s – looking particularly at Adrian Piper.

On the course we are looking at Greenberg along with Clive Bell’s The Aesthetic Hypothesis (1914) and Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics (1909) as the developers of formalism in art theory in the early twentieth-century. So I reviewed the texts we are reading by them for other instances of the subordination of ideas, but it seems that for Bell and Fry it goes without saying and so there are only oblique references to it.

Clive Bell:

. . . for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right, neither is there any necessity, to pry behind the object, into the state of mind of him who made it.

For to appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the works of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.

To appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.

But if in the artist an inclination to play upon the emotions of life is often the sign of a flickering inspiration, in the spectator a tendency to seek, behind form, the emotions of life is a sign of defective sensibility always.2

Roger Fry:

It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it . . . and towards such even the most normal person adopts to some extent the artistic attitude of pure vision abstracted from necessity.

We must therefore give up the attempt to judge the work of art by its reaction on life, and consider it as an expression of emotions regarded as ends in themselves.3

Being prior to the development of conceptual art, Fry and Bell’s judgments are historically tied to an understanding of art as object based, so their concept of ‘idea’ seems to be one of subject-matter. Conceptual art on the other hand conceived of the idea as something that isn’t necessarily represented, so the return of the idea, post-Greenberg, was not a return to a previous practice, but a new way of doing art.

  1. Greenberg, C.(1940). Towards a Newer Laocoon. In Frascina F., eds. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. London: Routledge, 1985.
  2. Bell, C.(1914). The Aesthetic Hypothesis. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.
  3. Fry, R.(1909). An Essay in Aesthetics. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.