There’s a feeling in this work — somenof which is quite affecting — that youncan go home again, and that home isnthe early 1970’s.”nThus The New York Times on then1989 Whitney Museum of AmericannArt’s biennial. Another entrant to thisnshow looked like a hank of hair hangingnfrom the wall, though it might havenbeen some escaped asbestos stuffing.nEven the Metropolitan Museum becamenindignant when a life-sizednbronze of Zeus which they owned, andnhad lent, appeared adorned by a Hispanicnartist with a TV monitor aroundnthe loins, a baseball bat in the rightnhand, and in his left a plexiglass screennshowing images of the homeless washingnwindshields, while the televisionnscreened scenes of Wall Street. FrancisconTorres, the artist in question,nanswered that “his” Zeus was “hinderednby the money and Wall Streetnmaterialism that is represented on thenmonitor.” His was “appropriationnart.” Some might want to call itn”desecration art.”nOne could go back a decade beforenthose “early 1970’s” identified by thenTimes critic in order to see not merelynin galleries but in publicly financednmuseums such works as a set-up ofnsimulated female pudenda (Judy Chncago), sculptured excrement and soilednbedclothes (Robert Rauschenberg),nand small strips of fabric stuck here andnthere to walls (Richard Tuttle). By thisntime we have seen vying for seriousnattention the work of a chimpanzee, ofna man who rides a bicycle over hisncanvas, of another who daubs his modelnwith paint and gets her to “copulate”nwith the same, and so on. As OscarnWilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.nCoincident with the Whitney biennial.nNew York’s Museum of ModernnArt mounted a retrospective of thenwork of the abstract expressionistnHelen Frankenthaler, who soaks poolsnof diluted oil paint onto floor canvasn(it’s called “soak-stain” painting). ThenNew York Times Magazine conferrednits imprimatur on the show with ancover feature on the artist. Therencomes a somewhat ineffable momentnin the Times’ paean of praise tonFrankenthaler when two celebratednspace-cadet (“color-field”) abstractionists,nKenneth Noland and Morris Louis,nmake “a now-historic pilgrimage” tonFrankenthaler’s studio, of which theninfluential critic Clement Greenbergnhad the key. Once let in, they feltn”exhilarated” by “the idea of beingnable to spread color out along thensurface of the picture without having itncreate an illusion.” What triumph!nCenturies of craft destroyed at a blown— or splash. The Times critic thennconcludes that “Frankenthaler is a lotnlike Paolo Veronese.”nO tempora, O moresl We are repeatedlyninformed that de Kooningncould draw like Ingres. No evidence ofnsuch has appeared. Moreover, the artistnwho can “draw like Ingres” seldomnentirely abandons the human referent.nPicasso never did. But the pufferynproceeds amain because you can saynanything about nothing: because anmiddle-class public that still enjoys reasonablynsophisticated books and musicnis bored stiff by wholesale abstraction,nand, finally, because curators and collectorsnwant to up the value of worksnthey have either been given or cheaplynacquired.nThe failure of the Sculls to sell theirn”modernist” junk put the chill intonsuch impresarios. Since then the pressurenhas increased to see art as anmarketable commodity, investmentworthy.nAn average Frankenthaler sellsntoday for $120,000, a Pollock in thenmillions, assuming you can get it homenbefore it disintegrates, for Pollocknsplashed on house-painter’s paint innsuch heavy impasto that restorers withnglue guns are already at work on hisnMOMA masterpieces, in a way nonenhas to be in the Uffizi in Florence, ornthe Accademia in Venice. The Rothkonscandal, shown up by the painter’sndaughter, exposed some, though notnall, of the grubbier aspects of contemporarynart trading. It matters more,nhowever, that the pictorial values of thenpast continue to be refined out ofnThe Metropolitan Museum’s life-sized bronze of Zeus, wielding a hat atnNew York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Reproduced by permissionnof the Whitney Museum.nnnNOVEMBER’1989/53n