Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

by David Shapiro

© 1987 by Stefanie Hermsdorf.

David Shapiro You have recently adumbrated the theme of Warhol as an artist of the right wing consistently misunderstood, flirted with, and admired by the left. This is a characteristically penetrating insight by you and I am interested in your expanding or exfoliating it for me.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Well, first I should want to say that the left in question here is a very small part of the left as a whole. The art world’s left is fascinated by Warhol, a regular visitor to the Ford White House, because it is primarily interested in shopkeeping. Warhol is beloved by the right and the left for exactly the same reason: he performed a ritual purging which seemed to deprive the art work of its complexity, freeing both those in power and those fascinated by it to talk about what really interests them, namely power in the land of commerce. In Capitalist society the conversion of any object into a purely commercial enterprise is always mistaken for a demystification of some sort. Warhol’s accomplishment was to demean the art object, which is to say, thought itself and of any sort, so thoroughly that both William Buckley and Benjamin Buchloh could experience the cultural object as one entirely explicable within the terms of their own codes. That is of course a part of Warhol’s triumph. The point is that all such triumphs are the triumphs of establishmentarianism and take place at the expense of complexity and any real desire to reorient thought. Warhol’s achievement was I think that he managed to dress confirmation up as transgression.

DS You have spoken to me of your admiration for Newman when you were young. Is it true that you came to America because of this admiration for Newman? What remains of this admiration? Isn’t it true that you are unfortunately maligned like Newman because you are willing to be an “intellectual” painter in the culture of “oriented inarticulateness.” What do you make of the American anti-intellectual tradition as it inflects the art world?

JG-R I first saw a couple of paintings by Newman in London when I was 17 and thought, as I still think, that I had never seen that much space in a painting before. I came to America because of that—although there must of course have been other reasons too—and my admiration for his paintings has grown. But it is of course also true that I don’t spend as much time as I once did actually thinking about his work.

As to American anti-intellectualism, I think I should just want to draw our attention to the extent that this is at the present an anti-intellectualism of intellectuals. This is not the thuggishness of the book burner, it’s the thuggishness of those who want books to be confirmations of themselves, a deformation which has produced the contemporary habit of stridently championing what is in fact already in power, but doing so of course through a rhetoric which pretends that it isn’t.

DS I have admired your four-part paintings. What was your procedure there? What is your sense of composition after the acompositional polemics of Judd, a sculptor I have heard you affirm? How can you keep your works from the “decorative,” or is there no danger in the decorative for you?

JG-R I see no problem with the decorative as such, it’s as possible a route to complexity as any other. The decorative, incidentally, as opposed to what? We live in a moment when the most thoroughly familiar decorative device is aggressivity in the name of honesty. One of the appalling consequences of the entirely philistine belief that art in some way consists of being sincere in public. The decorative would provide one way of resisting such nonsense. It does so in Matisse. As to Judd and composition, I think I should now say that the acompositional is clearly an aspect of the concept of composition, just as, á la Jakobsen, the agrammatical would necessarily have to be considered as a function of grammar. This is one of the senses in which one must nowadays experience Minimalism as a profoundly reformist movement, don’t you think?

I made my four-part paintings as a way of starting to paint again. I had done my first one-person show, at Bertha Urdang’s gallery, and that seemed after I’d done it to be all about painting without having any paintings in it. Everything but painting as it were. To begin to paint again I needed something minimally complex. Not one color, the idea of the unitary wasn’t, and still isn’t, one which I felt I could usefully address. Not two, because that’s just one thing against another, to such an extent that you might as well just have one. Not three, because three is just permutations of one against two. So four, which could, arranged in a square, provide a fairly large (to me it seems infinite) series of relationships which are both symmetrical—two against two—and asymmetrical—one against three—in configurations which oppose the horizontal and vertical to the diagonal and thus guarantee some opportunity for variety in movement across and within the surface of the painting.

DS I know you have often spoken of the line of painting as Cézanne to Stella to Ryman, with a great historical foreshortening, of course. How close to you still is this sense of the nearness of Cézanne, and the nearness of Marden? Do you have a response to Marden’s recent forays into the calligraphic (not that his drawing ever excluded it). We have often disagreed about Johns, whom you may see more than I as a late symbolist or intimist. Is there in your work an antipathy to the “neo-Dadaism” evident in much contemporary ironic work?

JG-R Cézanne, Bob Ryman, Stella, Marden, certainly seem to me to constitute a common project, or something like that, having to do with a vital problem of painting, the problem of the constructed space. I think I myself spend more time thinking about Matisse and Manet than about Cézanne, and that it is here that I find the problems of construction which obsess me. The St. Victoire paintings are, however, the key to more or less everything for more or less everybody who is interested in painting seriously at all in this century. As to Marden’s new paintings, I haven’t seen them. As to neo-Dada, I’m not quite sure where the Dada is in neo-Dada. Neo-Dada so often seems to do little but declare itself as an object which celebrates the possession of knowledge through cleverness. Such an object, as far as I can see, could never really be ironical, because it has to present itself as something credible while it is the very idea of credibility which it’s supposed to call into question. I think it’s there that you and I might disagree about Johns. I don’t see the work’s deployment of irony as sufficiently self-critical, by which I mean it begins with Duchamp but fails to call Duchamp’s ideas into serious question. It’s confirmational art, and what it confirms are the beliefs necessary to a certain criticality, with regard to which it is in no sense ironical as far as I can see. In general irony would seem to be very difficult in the 20th century. How could one construct an ironical distance in an epoch where the preposterous consistently exceeds itself as it has in ours? When the foci of world history flicker from Queen Victoria, to Hitler, to Ronny Reagan, there is really little possibility for irony to be much more than presumptive and as such capable of little more than ornamentation. I think this is why irony plays such a small part in the great art of our century. There’s very little irony in Joyce or Pynchon, or Matisse or Ryman, in fact it’s effectively excluded. Evelyn Waugh—as with Céline, it is here the right which makes the point most clearly—showed that the most effective irony was produced by simply writing down the facts about life within the state administrative apparatus, in his case that part of the apparatus manifested by the distinct but interlocking worlds of the worthlessly rich and of journalism. Interestingly, Waugh does in this show that the ironic is one condition within which it is possible to make art out of being sincere, but that lesson has certainly not been learnt by the visual artists whom one most readily associates with the ironical in contemporary vernacular usage.

DS You told me recently that the Beastie Boys, for example, are truer transgressions than one of our most celebrated theatrical directors of the so-called avant-garde. This is an interesting judgment and I am intrigued by your sense of the transgressive. Can painting today be subversive? Can poetry? There is a Paul Klee painting Ad Marginem. Are we so much in the margins, socially, psychically, as not to count at all?

JG-R The point might be, who’s doing the counting? Who’s standing where God used to stand? History? In the form of whom? The editor of the Modern Language Association Quarterly? Of Artforum? I’m reluctant to grant the authority required by the concept of the marginal. For those who need to eliminate Painting and Poetry, and as far as I can see, Prose, Sculpture, Cinema as a literary form, and also argument itself, from cultural life all these things belong at the margins. All the easier to just do a bit of cropping and have done with them altogether. More seriously, I think cultural forms might be most subversive when most irrelevant. What could be more threatening to the megalomania of power than that which couldn’t be fitted in, the irrelevant? One should struggle to be irrelevant, which is to say to be irresponsible where the power apparatus is concerned.

It is there that transgression might, in my opinion, at least seem to occur in a credible way. The ‘celebrated theatrical director’ you mention is of course Robert Wilson and sure he’s not in any way as interesting as the Beastie Boys inasmuch as his work is about nothing but fetishizing the ephemeral. Theirs is at least about being bad, in a satisfying vile and adolescent way. Wilson’s is about advertising the triumph of the precious, in the form of a series of tableaux which reduce the notion of transgression to a politeness of a certain sort, the naughtiness of droll boys one might say. The adolescents have the Beastie Boys, those who have power but not youth have droll boys, I think I’d say it was something like that. Very Warholian, obviously, and reactionary in the same way.

DS I guess the usual question asked of you, and we should hear your answer again, is why you intransigently keep to the idea of “good painting,” in an era of bad manners, Warholism, and absurdism. Since you have praised Smithson and Joel Shapiro, you are not dogmatically “about” abstract painting, but your response to abstraction is perhaps the C major of your work, or how would you deal with this topic?

JG-R I am of course pleased that you should ask me this question although at the same time I must say you’ve put it in a form which seems to me to be a little odd. I mean I make abstract paintings so my work is at that level not “about” abstract painting at all, it is abstract painting. As to my critical work, I hope I have by now made it reasonably clear that I don’t write about things from a point of view which, intentionally at least, seeks to valorize or privilege other things. I think I am mostly interested in thought, and seek to treat it properly with regards to its context and address wherever I might encounter it in an interesting form. As to abstraction, the questions which interest me are those having to do with the space of painting. Space as an invisibility made visible. That seems to me to be the province of abstract painting and, in my case, for the possibility of articulating relationships of non-relationship. I am interested in complexity, and it seems to me that abstract painting is an art in which one can have complexity as opposed to invoking it.

DS Why do you think that an abstraction coded in irony like Halley’s has been so taken up with fashion and the world of fashion? Rilke said we should avoid irony except where it was impossible to avoid; the final ironies. How can we avoid cheap whimsy? It is, I take it, one of your strategies; also to avoid purplish melodrama.

JG-R Don’t you think abstraction and everything else always was bound up with fashion in one way or another? Stella painted Porsches or something didn’t he, and does one not find an interest in the chic and the alive in the biographies of Mondrian and so forth? It is true that Barbara Rose likes to write about when the times were more sincere, but she writes about it where she writes about everything else, in Vogue. If people are doing things more openly perhaps that means they’re doing them more consciously. May one hope so? As far as I can see, as I think I’ve already said, the irony of the ironical is that anyone should still think it possible. By the way I’m not at all sure that Peter Halley’s work is, or is really intended to be, ironical. Cheap whimsy is the conformist mode of our time, it signifies power over knowledge by way of contempt for knowledge, the arrogance of those who already have power and feel that they can make knowledge mean what they want it to mean, and their hangers-on, the bold champions of what is already established and which they preserve by pretending that it (and they) are in some way endangered. Cheap whimsy prolongs the status quo by pretending to dismiss it, just as October or Artforum prolong the Duchampian academicism which binds them by way of periodically publishing articles which seem to call things into question but ask no questions at all of the apparatus of inquiry and the presumptions behind it. I feel myself beginning to sound purplishly melodramatic.

DS I think it would be interesting to hear your response to the following artists, if only epigrammatically: Watteau, Caravaggio, Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Lichtenstein. I choose both some historical figures and some recent.

JG-R What a great list. Watteau seems to me to be the great artist who most obviously lacks a major exegesis. Tim Crowe has obviously tried but his method is surely too mechanical and reductive. What needs to be looked at in my opinion is Watteau’s presentation of barbarism through fluffiness in the context of an unsettling equation of stillness with insubstantiality. Watteau’s color is one starting point, the remarkable influence of his treatment of women is another. Look at Watteau’s sketchbooks and they look like nothing so much as the kind of drawing fashion illustrators do. This is not a small point. Watteau paints the great fragility, life itself, as a fragility. This is the sense in which he invents the modern before the modern, he presents the frivolous as that which contains the most profound meaning. He invents Manet’s answer to Courbet avant la lettre, namely that, to quote Baudrillard, the most dangerous meaning is to be found in what Marx was pleased to call the “non-essential areas of production.”

As to Caravaggio I think he’s been reinvented by Stella. For all the reasons that have become, or always were, so important to Stella I don’t spend much time thinking about Caravaggio. I mean the tremendous power of the composition, which is perhaps not all that immediately germane to me because I am trying to find a way to subdue the role of composition in favor of color and surface, I also personally find Caravaggio’s paintings a bit oppressive in their masculinity, all that weight and diagonality, not to mention what is opposed to it.

Stella is in my opinion a great artist, and like Matisse he performs a certain exasperation in the course of being great. I am referring to the way in which Stella lives so completely within art history, at the same time, of course, endlessly producing the unanticipated. At the same time I think the most neglected aspect of his work has to do with his use of already familiar contemporary materials. Years ago, when he did the first aluminum reliefs. I was struck by the origins of the stretched canvas in the age of sail, of early Capitalism, as opposed to this use of aeroplane materials and construction technique. It seemed to me, does seem to me, that the weightlessness of the space of painting should be looked at with this in mind. It still does.

Kelly is mysterious to me—I can see what is good in his work, have learnt from it myself, but don’t quite see what makes it as good as it probably is. One also thinks of him as an influence, of course, and I suppose one could think of certain careers as in some respects openings-up of Kelly. One thinks of all of Bochner’s early work, of the kind of clarity achieved by Rockburne’s carbon-paper works. Also one might mention Serra, not so much an opening-up as a roughening-up in this regard, perhaps, but it is certainly true, as Bruce Boice pointed out at the time, that the first oil-stick drawings Richard did looked like nothing so much as Ellsworth Kelly drawings once they’d been photographed.

When I first met Ryman we talked about Matisse and Stella and Lichtenstein, and he made the point that Lichtenstein is one of those painters, like Matisse, who can make five colors look like 25. I think that more or less says it all.

DS You have some quarrels with T. J. Clarke’s recent reading of Olympia. Could you discuss what you think are some of the misinterpretations there? You were called a “higher Marxist” by Kimball. Perhaps we are all “higher Marxists” when we attempt to escape vulgarizing or miniaturizing Marxism.

JG-R Yes, well, perhaps. I read the New Criterion article of course, and my question is, where does Hilton [Kramer] get these lads? One imagines some sort of survivalist training camp, attached to a non-profit organization á la Ollie North, up in Vermont somewhere, where slightly rotund but very well-dressed instructors train young men from good backgrounds to write prose in which the name T. S. Eliot will crop up automatically once in every six paragraphs. I don’t give a fiddler’s fuck how such people grade Marxists, and should gladly, were push come to shove, which at the level of cultural production it has not, identify myself with even the grossest Stalinism in opposition to any doctrinaire anti-Marxism. If they want to talk about vulgarity why don’t they say a few words about vulgar Conservatism? Vulgar neo-Conservatism is a pleonism. Any doctrine which seeks to convert tomato ketchup into a green vegetable by Presidential fiat, in order to deprive the children of the poor of a decent school lunch in the name of fiscal responsibility, is nothing but a vulgarization of the western political tradition as such. The corpse of T. S. Eliot, which is after all the corpse of a man committed to a notion of the social as an arrangement of responsibilities, also, by the way, to the proposition that tradition is dynamic and not something with regard to which the jury is definitively in, must be rotating like a bloody Futurist turbine.

As to Clarke’s interpretation of Manet, of the women, idea or image of woman, in Manet, it’s not so much the interpretation as where he wants to take it which gives me trouble. I think Manet is an artist of the ambivalent. Clarke seems to me to want to make him a part of the Enlightenment tradition, the project of liberation. I say yes he is that but he is just as much a part of the anti-Enlightenment. That he’s as Nietzschian as he’s subsumable to Marx-Freud, in other words. Clarke would say—I’m extrapolating—that he’s that but that it’s in that that he becomes a part of the project which he otherwise might be seen to call into question. I say perhaps, but the strength of the work seems to me to remain that of its Nietzschian hopelessness, that is, any freedom it might seem to offer, and this is itself only present as negative implication, is freedom from hope, freedom from the slavery of anticipation and deferral, a freedom from hope which is of course not conceived as a pathos of any kind, and that is a bit hard to subsume within the kind of dialectic which Clarke articulates. Or so it seems to me.

DS You have planned a movie that is to take place on an elevator. Please discuss. What do you think of recent movie makers? After Straub, after Godard, is there a cinema?

JG-R The movie was going to take place on an escalator, three-quarter view shot from below for the most part, because escalators have some similarities to film, going over a roller at the top and one at the bottom, with two irreversible movements, the movement upwards of the escalator, the woman on the elevator being undressed. I hypothesized it in 1973. More recently I’ve had some ideas for a video. I’m interested in the look of MTV and of advertisements in general, particularly perfume ads, and so forth, but these are things where I should need help and time, that is to say, money.

As to film it seems to me to be an interesting era. This is one area in which America lags behind everywhere else, preposterously enough. In England you see interesting films from places like Mozambique. One I even saw on the television quite late at night, here you never see such stuff anywhere. On cinema, I am reading Deleuze. I naturally follow Gilberto Perez’s writing closely, he seems to me to be the best writer we have on what cinematic narrative is. I read Annette (Michelson) of course, but I must say I do tend to find myself drifting off a bit nowadays, she seems to have decided to devote almost all her energy into this sort of policewoman function, ferreting out pockets of Idealism within the avant-garde of the early 20th century. Coming from the champion of Brakhage, this has great charm and poignancy. Other than that I’d concur with the official truth that the most fecund area for film studies has for the past 15 years or so been within feminism.

DS Recently, Buadrillard complained of being misused by some of the young painters. You agree that he has been misappropriated?

JG-R Why shouldn’t he be? Everybody else is. It kind of reminds me of a riposte of Foucault’s to those who attacked his use of Nietszche’s writing: “Don’t tell me what Nietszche said, listen to what I’m making him say.” I’ve already commented on the down side of people making things mean what they choose to make them mean but there is the other side to the question too. If Peter Halley gets the idea of hyperreal color out of Baudrillard, in some sense, good luck to him. In other words if a misreading produces a positivity, good. On the other hand, the logical extension of the art world’s interest in Baudrillard is in practice what we get in the Mary Boone catalogue for the Barbara Kruger show, which is Baudrillard insisting that the work can’t possibly be about what it actually claims to be about, a position, I am delighted to be able to insist, which is entirely consistent with my own, thoroughly pedantic and responsible in the sense which Foucault calls into contempt, recent discussion of the implications of Baudrillard’s central premises for the discussion and production of contemporary art. To add a note on Barbara, I just wish that he’d come out with what is surely the most pertinent point in his own terms, namely that the tremendous seduction performed by Kruger’s work is to be located precisely in its conversion of nagging into an enigma. May one call this the conversion of production into the _a_productive?

DS We have collaborated: we have talked of future collaborations. But is there a possibility of language in painting that can avoid the pathos of our lack of calligraphic norms? What do you think now of Kosuth’s use of language? Of feminist slogans?

JG-R I think I should say, why does it have to be in painting? Why couldn’t it be with painting. I think the real problem is not with a lack of calligraphic norms but the reverse. The Duchamp academy has imposed an authority of the word unto everything in such a way as to make language very difficult to use in conjunction with the visual. The authority in question is indeed that of the slogan and it is indeed imposed. I don’t know what I think about Joseph Kosuth. I think he’s a guy who signs things, a Pop Duchampian. What I think about feminist slogans is what I think about slogans in general, they possess the clarity of the epigram, which is to say they distort even as they clarify, and in general I think slogans tend to stop thought rather than promote it. “The Personal is Political,” a slogan of the now less recent past which was not I think invented by feminists but was certainly adopted by a large part of the feminist movement, has to go down as one of the great invitations to regression into liberalism, or alternatively to the worst sort of Maoist-Ayatollaism, that Anglo-American culture has produced in my lifetime.

DS After Pynchon, has there been a serious Menippean satire whose scope might interest you?

JG-R There seems to be a huge amount of good fiction being written all over the world. You talk about the peripheralization of painting or poetry, take a look at the novel. In the visual arts we are deluged by idiotic generalizations about narrative which are made all the worse by being produced in complete ignorance of what people who are in the narrative business are actually doing. Pynchon has a new novel coming out in the fall. The enormous tide generated by, in particular, the various enthusiasms surrounding the theories of Bakhtin, some of which work has as you know been done by my sometime colleague and our mutual friend John Johnston, has tremendous significance for the arts in general, for thought in general. Almost no one in the art world reads it, except to the extent that one knows one should be reading it or, better, have read it already, or, better yet, have read it in Russian, or, best of all, be aware of the Russian and other sources in Continental Materialism which are crucial to an understanding of the text but have not yet been translated. The art world is of course not alone in its conversion of knowledge into snobbery, but it is in this instance debilitated by it in an especially striking sort of way, or so it seems tonic. I’ve turned your question into a complaint about how the art world has a limited grasp of the narrative because of its indifference to literature.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Melancholy is a Concept, 1987, Oil on linen, 28" Collection of Anne Plumb. Photo Ivan Dalla Tana.

DS Are you, in the sense that Mondrian said he was, an abstract realist? Did you not say green is always derived from perceptions of nature? Is the very “abstract” a snark except perhaps in the generalizations of science?

JG-R Yes to the first question, but let me also say I feel much closer to Malevich than to Mondrian, and closer to Matisse than either. Yes to the second, too, but I shouldn’t want that to be taken to mean that all abstract painting was really a kind of representationalism manqué. And therefore yes and no to the third. Yes, inasmuch as one does of course see the painting as essentially concrete, not abstract at all and in that also not at all an abstraction. A surface, a series of traces, an actualized theory of construction, an object intervening in a history of objects, it is in these senses that I think that you are right to suggest that abstraction is a snarkish concept. But no, inasmuch as it does seem to be the case that abstract or nonrepresentional art does indeed reconstitute, or make signs for, the invisible in the sense that Lyotard describes Malevich as trying to paint emptiness within emptiness, or Mallarmé describes Manet lamenting the absence on his palette of paint which was transparent, which could paint the air, the space itself. To take a line of yours, “The moon moves outward failing to grip the roadway,” this is a line which could only be turned into painting by eliminating the semantic content and somehow positing a luminosity both unstable in its relationship to one thing while possessing a trajectory of a discernably deliberate and determined sort in a direction away from that instability. In other words you can either turn it into music of some sort or make a representational painting which could commemorate your line but perhaps not reconstitute it. It’s in these terms that the word ‘abstract’ seems to me to have some use.

DS De Kooning said that oil paint was invented for the depiction of flesh. What is your relation to the carnal tradition, to the nude?

JG-R Well, it seems at least possible that it literally was. Every reader of Goldwater and Tréves’s little collection of snippets by the great artists will recall Leonardo denouncing the Netherlandish painters for just being painters of stuff, fur, flesh, wood, steel, while he, boring Classicist that he seems to have been on the afternoon he wrote this particular note, recommends that in painting everything should be subsumed, through composition, which is to say drawing, to the idea which governs the work, with as little local detail in the way of color or tactility as possible. I think the point about flesh is that it’s always there. If oil paint is particularly suited to its depiction, then it makes the painting a doubling of the idea of flesh which is already contained in the fact of the work as surface and support, skin and skeleton. So it’s more a question of what’s being done to the idea of skin than one of whether it’s there or not. I wrote about this recently with regard to James Hayward’s painting. I should also point to the work of Haim Steinbach in this regard. I was recently able to meet him and to discuss with him, among other things, the relevance to his work of Barthes’s essay on plastic. You will recall that Barthes describes plastic as a kind of skin. Steinbach, by the way, seems to me to be one person who has managed to use the idea of the readymade without being mired in Duchampian academicism in so doing. The idea of oil painting and flesh reminds me of Joyce’s map of County Cork made out of cork. “It’s Cork.” “Yes, it’s cork.” It’s a skin, yes, it’s a skin. Painting is necessarily a manipulation of the idea of skin and therefore of the body. The surface of painting is a skin which is the construction of a space, or an anti-spatiality, a non-space which could only be conceived in spatial terms.

If there is a carnal tradition I should certainly prefer to belong to it.

Critical theory
Abstract Expressionism
Transgressive art
Fall 1987
The cover of BOMB 21