I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
New York Live Arts presents
Monika Sprüth Galerie in Cologne has three large rooms. During Rosemarie Trockel’s show last fall each was devoted to a different kind of work; none however, offered the pieces for which she’s best known—pictures woven in wool patterned with repeated motifs. In the first room were five or six large drawings made with rubber stamps, and opposite them in a glass case, several ski caps she’d designed. On one side of the second room was a graceful table which displayed two rows of ladles mounted on a rack. The bowls of the ladles had been replaced with whelk shells and the entire piece cast in bronze. Across from it a tall glass box contained a funnel-shaped model of the structure of a black hole. The last room was given over to perhaps 30 small, rather Beuys-like drawings.
What struck me about Trockel’s show, and many times in Europe, was the surprising variety of work considered acceptable within one show. The specific intent of this particular exhibition was to stress Trockel’s range, but other European artists, including Georg Herold, John Armleder, and Martin Kippenberger, have also shown diverse bodies of work produced concurrently.
Although these younger artists have considerable precedent, from Picasso and Duchamp to Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys, for undertaking a free-ranging oeuvre, one feels that the trio of Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter have been particularly important as exemplars for the present generation.
Their insistence that the inner logic of their work—for example, Richter’s fascination with the abstract mechanism of dialectical argument; Palermo’s intuitive but precise explication of abstract signs—shape the outward form of their entire oeuvre, rather than any a priori convention, whether pragmatic or theoretical, has become a powerful paradigm.
I use the specific word “exemplars” above because the theoretical base of these artists is so strikingly embedded in the example of their work itself, in the unfolding of its shape in time. Their intellectual basis is not in a preexisting critical program extrinsic to the process of making. Their objects are so compelling and influential in the present not least because they address in practice, in the studio, in the gallery, not only in theory, the matrix of assumptions and conventions shared between artists, dealers, collectors, and curators; assumptions that aren’t formally coded, but nonetheless define and limit what’s possible to achieve at any given moment. They provide a starkly simple demonstration that this is the arena—doing things differently, not merely describing them differently—that matters.
The signature or logo image and its cousin the serial logo image are just such conventions. Their hegemony is all the more powerful for being uncoded, a matter of custom. These practices have become institutionalized because they provide a means of sidestepping the vagaries of sensibility, the unpredictable twists and turns of abstract thinking, substituting instead production values: craft, high-finish, reliability, uniformity. It’s the same values that lead recording industry executives to adopt the eloquent term “Product” to refer to the music itself.
Carter Ratcliff coined a pungent epithet for the equivalent approach in the visual arts: “image management.” Ratcliff used the term in an article which appeared in Art in America in February, 1985 to describe Frank Stella’s succession of logo images. Stella’s method is to decide in advance on a visual vocabulary for a body of work and then to vary the elements of this vocabulary only cosmetically, disallowing anything that might threaten a successful result or throw the premises of the series in question. He proceeds automatically, according to plan, distributing forms and colors without bothering much over the small but critical decisions that create a living pulse, a distinctive identity in a picture. The kind of decisions one sees, for instance, in the subtle way Jasper Johns inflects even repetitive motifs like herringbones or flagstones.
Interestingly, it’s this very “assembly line” aspect of Stella’s work that Peter Halley chose to defend in a recent article for Flash Art (March, 1986). Halley attempted to construct a rationale for Stella’s procedure by demonstrating that he is “neither a modernist nor a bureaucrat” and that “his work conforms closely to a model of postmodernism that is dominated by ideas of hyperrealization, stimulation, closure, and fascination.”
The Baudrillardian reading of Stella is amusing in a scholastic way, but since it does no more than provide a new rationale for an old and ossified practice it’s irrelevant. In fact, Halley only implicates himself in Stella’s problem by offering a rationalization which is itself quintessential bureaucratic. Justifying a moribund or unpalatable policy simply by giving it a sexy new moniker (from modern to postmodern) is a favorite bureaucratic gambit; “constructive engagement” was a memorable recent example.
At a moment when an alternative model is available, that proposed by Palermo, Polke, and Richter, it’s at best counter-productive, at worst disingenuous to busy oneself draping rhetorical garlands over exhausted conventions. The effect of such a rationale, however cleverly constructed, however much it declares its critical intent, is to reinforce the very real, very uncritical treatment of art as Product.
If there is a European trait that corresponds to this American conception of art as Product, it’s a reverence for art as the trace of Sensibility. I think it’s this fascination with Sensibility rather than any innate love of the abstruse that makes the European audience (by which I mean dealers and critics as well as the public) disposed to follow the artist in an elliptical course. One might also attribute the sometimes woozily rhapsodic European criticism to the same source. An even darker side of this infatuation with sensibility is the need it suggests for an authority figure to worship: a Wagner, a Picasso or Beuys, whose slightest trace is held to be of great consequence.
Despite these caveats, the reverence for sensibility does create a certain latitude for the artist, a certain willingness on the part of the audience to try to grasp an elliptical train of thought, not to insist always on a relentless declaration of the work’s identity. Any approach that encourages an understanding that an artist may employ a family of ideas or images quite as effectively as a single trademark image, that discovering unexpected congruences among different things might be the subject of the work, and that unity might be implicit in the ensemble rather than explicit in a uniform appearance, that approach has something to recommend it.
Extrapolating from the example provided by Palermo, Polke, and especially Richter, one might propose a fictional artist in the spirit of Frenhofer in Balzac’s The Unfìnished Masterpiece or of Kafka’s “hunger artist” whose vast oeuvre would consist of precise signs not one of which is ever repeated. Each one discrete but none definitive, these signs would be hardly more than interruptions in a field of meaning, which, like the small irregularities in linen that call attention to the regular weave of the whole fabric, would provoke in the viewer a complete vision. In such an art the discovery of the principle of unity, rather than merely providing reassurance (as in the logo image), would itself constitute the aesthetic shock.
—Stephen Ellis is a painter living and working in New York. He also writes art criticism.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.