Reflections on the 1989 Whitney Biennial of American Art

“Among the Neo-Minimalists Liz Larner makes a strangely regular tapestry out of human eyelashes. The team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler compares bottles of powdered pigment. Meg Webster makes a big low-lying circle out of nothing but dirt; a second sculpture populates soil with plants, stones, and running water. There’s a feeling in this work—some of which is quite affecting—that you can go home again, and that home is the early 1970’s.”

Thus The New York Times on the 1989 Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial. Another entrant to this show looked like a hank of hair hanging from the wall, though it might have been some escaped asbestos stuffing. Even the Metropolitan Museum became indignant when a life-sized bronze of Zeus which they owned, and had lent, appeared adorned by a Hispanic artist with a TV monitor around the loins, a baseball bat in the right hand, and in his left a plexiglass screen showing images of the homeless washing windshields, while the television screened scenes of Wall Street. Francisco Torres, the artist in question, answered that “his” Zeus was “hindered by the money and Wall Street materialism that is represented on the monitor.” His was “appropriation art.” Some might want to call it “desecration art.”

One could go back a decade before those “early 1970’s” identified by the Times critic in order to see not merely in galleries but in publicly financed museums such works as a set-up of simulated female pudenda (Judy Chicago), sculptured excrement and soiled bedclothes (Robert Rauschenberg), and small strips of fabric stuck here and there to walls (Richard Tuttle). By this time we have seen vying for serious attention the work of a chimpanzee, of a man who rides a bicycle over his canvas, of another who daubs his model with paint and gets her to “copulate” with the same, and so on. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.

Coincident with the Whitney biennial. New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the work of the abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, who soaks pools of diluted oil paint onto floor canvas (it’s called “soak-stain” painting). The New York Times Magazine conferred its imprimatur on the show with a cover feature on the artist. There comes a somewhat ineffable moment in the Times’ paean of praise to Frankenthaler when two celebrated space-cadet (“color-field”) abstractionists, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, make “a now-historic pilgrimage” to Frankenthaler’s studio, of which the influential critic Clement Greenberg had the key. Once let in, they felt “exhilarated” by “the idea of being able to spread color out along the surface of the picture without having it create an illusion.” What triumph! Centuries of craft destroyed at a blow—or splash. The Times critic then concludes that “Frankenthaler is a lot like Paolo Veronese.”

O tempora, O mores! We are repeatedly informed that de Kooning could draw like Ingres. No evidence of such has appeared. Moreover, the artist who can “draw like Ingres” seldom entirely abandons the human referent. Picasso never did. But the puffery proceeds amain because you can say anything about nothing: because a middle-class public that still enjoys reasonably sophisticated books and music is bored stiff by wholesale abstraction, and, finally, because curators and collectors want to up the value of works they have either been given or cheaply acquired.

The failure of the Sculls to sell their “modernist” junk put the chill into such impresarios. Since then the pressure has increased to see art as a marketable commodity, investment-worthy. An average Frankenthaler sells today for $120,000, a Pollock in the millions, assuming you can get it home before it disintegrates, for Pollock splashed on house-painter’s paint in such heavy impasto that restorers with glue guns are already at work on his MOMA masterpieces, in a way none has to be in the Uffizi in Florence, or the Accademia in Venice. The Rothko scandal, shown up by the painter’s daughter, exposed some, though not all, of the grubbier aspects of contemporary art trading. It matters more, however, that the pictorial values of the past continue to be refined out of existence in movement after movement. Take something like Minimalism which, in one gallery exhibition, offered no more on the walls but brief instructions on what might be there. In Minimalism no skills are needed.

So what are the values of that very small group of pundits who confer status on empty exhibitions, puff up prices of painters in their own collections, and send them overseas to represent American art? For when there is virtually nothing in a painting (as in Ad Reinhardt’s black canvases, which have to be trickily lit when photographed to assure that nothing shows), then criteria collapse and the museum curator can merely prophecy, assuring us from his eminence that the work is avant-garde and original. He occupies the throne.

The entire gnosis of modern art in this country reposes on originality. Professor Lester Longman calls it “the paramount value” today. T.E. Hulme told us that works of art aren’t eggs; he could have made his point more trenchantly by substituting automobiles for eggs. The whole structure of our economy, as of our necessary military security, rests on the new. Its infection in the sphere of art can be seen in The New York Times‘ review of the biennial, where the critic chops up art developments into decades, assuming there is a new art available to the 80’s that was not present in the 70’s.

But art is not technology, and art modes that have unseated their antecedents come in turn to seem trite, commonplace (cubism, futurism, dada). When I first came to New York, the Guggenheim Museum was filled with the hard-edged abstractions of Hilla Rebay and her followers and friends; with the advent of the abstract expressionists (and James Johnson Sweeney to the curatorship) theSe were banished to the basement where, so far as I know, they still remain, though similar paintings have erupted and the ranks of their successors, despite astronomical prices paid for publicized figures, have been thinned drastically and may well end up in those self-same cellars.

But no museum director is going to chart a decline in this year’s model of contemporary art. To be extreme today is to be original. To be extravagantly extreme is to be more so. No museum director today adds much representational art to his contemporary collection (unless it is accredited as investment-worthy); that model has been seen before. “Imitation should not be permitted to have even the slightest part in the creative process,” wrote the influential Hans Hoffman in the catalog of the 1959 University of Illinois Annual. Yet originality in itself was far from a preeminent canon in the past (El Greco and Turner only being valued for originality years after their deaths). And what about all those Madonnas? As Longman suggests, we have turned originality in art into innovation, the new. Signature art (a readily recognizable style to identify the painter) is paramount, yet carries its dangers for the practitioner. After all, when you have established your trademark, be you Pollock, Mondrian, or Kline, you would be ill advised to alter it in the marketplace; at a recent Christie’s auction black-and-white Klines (his true signature) went for higher prices than Klines with, color. But after the trademark, what? Why persist in a style that has been, pace the pundits, superceded? Why not take art to the logical vacuum it now inhabits and discover “that remorseless consolation—in the end is the beginning,” as a MOMA catalog described a Pollock?

The critics have succeeded in making representation look like political reaction, thereby licensing a new order that emancipates the artist from any traditional accomplishments of his mystery, subserving the same to money. There seems every evidence we shall continue to see the end of art served up in our museums as kitsch (witness the tragedy of England’s Victoria and Albert) and funded by tax-levying grants—take the arid boxes of Donald Judd, the Tilted Arc placed in Manhattan Plaza by Richard Serra (removed at public request), the “earthworks” of an artist who collected dreck from beside the New Jersey turnpike (and has now returned it), the shabby sacks dropped in the Caribbean by another, the encasing of large stretches of the landscape in plastic by Christo (inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1989).

Perhaps the final insult has been to authenticate this misdirection of art by citing someone like Baudelaire as its sponsor. Baudelaire left us a body of art criticism in the form of descriptive reviews of Parisian “salons,” not entirely dissimilar from Whitney biennials. Delacroix allowed Baudelaire to be around. The poet knew Manet and stayed with Courbet, in whose vast l’Atelier, rejected by the 1855 Salon, Baudelaire may be seen (just).

Yet none of these artists abandoned the humanistic. It is simply difficult to see today as Baudelaire saw. It is hard to see an early Constable as revolutionary (“Take away that nasty green thing,” they told him at the Royal Academy) any more than it is that famous bridge at Aries. Baudelaire’s father was a close friend of Jean Naigeon, a pupil of David and curator of the Luxembourg from 1802 to 1830. Baudelaire saw his first Delacroix (the Bataille de Taillebourg) the 1837 Salon, thus beginning a lifelong infatuation with that ultraromantic artist. He attended Delacroix’s funeral with Manet.

It is true he championed originality, but he would have been the last to say, with Herbert Read in Icon and Idea, that “Feeling and thinking are one.” Baudelaire’s goddess of beauty was a stern figure, his sonnet to her including the line “Je hais le mouvement qui deplace les lignes.” He invariably demanded discipline in his own poetry and in fact admired much painting that today looks to us like the acme of vulgarity—Lassales-Bordes’ dying Cleopatra, Baudry’s Vestal, Prud’hon’s Venus et Adonis, and Haussoullier’s Fontaine de jouvence, a pastiche even in its tide. As Baudelaire put it, “Look at what it is to live in a time when people think inspiration suffices for and replaces everything . . . there lies the abyss into which plunges the chaotic course of Mazeppa.” Our standards in art, as exemplified in museum show after show, are those of hype, and hype is kitsch. Consider Cordon Washburn, prefacing a Carnegie International at Pittsburgh: “To be out of step with your contemporaries is to be camouflaged. Although clearly visible, no one may chance to ‘see’ you.” Or, as Oscar Wilde again put it, to be intelligible these days is to be found out.