Thursday, May 6, 2010


A Response to Essays From

“ENDGAME: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture”

The complexion of Endgame, the 1986 Boston ICA show, and its operation within the coda of the traditional art disciplines of painting and sculpture, is posited in this candid statement by Sherrie Levine: “There is a long modernist tradition of endgame art... and a lot of artists have made the last painting ever to be made. It's a no-man's land that a lot of us enjoy moving around in, and the thing is to not lose your sense of humor, because it's only art.” (61). That said, the existence of this postmodern mimetic art seems quite serious, as it is primarily contingent upon diachroneity: modernism is swallowed and then regurgitated with a subtextually analytic proposition. Endgame proposes a sort of “anti-Kant” stance, wherein it seeks to endorse an invalidation of art/object in a declamation of original signification and strives to institute a “new and improved” point of view.

In point of fact, modernism sought, and perhaps achieved complete reduction in painting and sculpture. But in an artistic culture of pure asceticism and self-denial, vitality could not persist. In “The Return of Hank Herron,” by Thomas Crow, a rationalization exists that, within the art of Endgame there is indeed a vitality in the art of recontextualization. However, it may be equally arguable that a mimesis of known reductive artworks engenders reduction. In mimetically reproducing minimalist art, it may well be that the reductive qualities become inherently coded within the new work due to the formalist structure of a technical narrative.

The landscape of Crow's essay is dominated by a central field of gray that is the early '70s parody write-up “Fake as More,” which touts the fictive Hank Herron and his equally fictive show. A ten-year-old make-believe review is rather an odd genesis for an art movement, but it is clear that the fantasy article became a kind of artistic canon, a platform upon which postmodern artists could assail the mannered aesthetic of the modernists. This attitude is clearly delineated in Crow's statement that, “'Fake as More' is a thoroughly unsympathetic attack, displaying more than a tinge of philistinism, on the inwardness of modernist practice...” (15). In this case, we have a vanguard attacking the old guard, the justification for this being that, in the complex war of artistic progress, those who have fallen behind are weak and cannot contribute to art's advancement. The Greenbergian necessity to “make it new” was made nonviable. But this is merely a half-persuasive justification for collapsing 20th-Century modernism in upon itself. Endgame shows how modernism can clearly be re-presented in a contemporary paradigm, but the question remains: does this imitative art also travel down a limited path, keeping 1960s modernism on veritable life-support?

In Elizabeth Sussman's “The Last Picture Show,” high praise is given to Sherrie Levine for her utilization of key technical and theoretical components in order to arrive at her diverse imagery. As fascinating as this may be - in the context of modernist work transubstantiating into postmodern - the technical, formalist arrival at the works' distilled appropriation conceivably do not institute as dynamic a shift as Sussman sets forth. Levine's statement (q.v. - opening sentence of this essay) reflects an attitude not quite in synch with Sussman's assertion that the artist's efforts to level abstraction to a generic, commodified signifier is laced with a “tone of anger.” (62). The artist's intentionality is rendered rather imprecisely by her own words. Truth be told, Levine does not retain her “sense of humor” in that her work engages in a feminist discourse, copying works from a period dominated by men. Sussman confirms this: “Levine, who only copied male artists, explained her exercise as related to feminism.” A tongue-in-cheek approach is not inspired by feminist critique.

A more precise account of what occurred through Levine is that a precedent was set that has allowed for an arguably too-fluid methodology of appropriation 20 years after Sussman's encomium. In 2007, the artist Andrew Mowbray re-created Janine Antoni's feminist-critique-heavy performance piece “Loving Care.” It was, in its technical essence, the exact same work: the artists painted the floor of a gallery using the hair on their heads saturated with hair dye. The difference between the two pieces is a single contextual shift: Mowbray is a man (his piece is titled “Just for Men”). In this, one can see Endgame's purposeful rupturing of modernism reflected forward into a new splintering within the postmodern. Matthew Nash elaborates: “Mowbray's piece is not unique in its approach, nor is it a failed work of art. In fact, it is an ideal example of the state of Postmodern art, which has become thoroughly self-consuming... just as the Modernists rushed toward the "Last Painting" in that endgame, it seems that we are now involved in another endgame.” (Nash).

There is sustained and significant focus upon kitsch, commodification and fetishism in Hal Foster's “The Future of an Illusion.” The Duchamp-ian paradigm of readymade art looms large over most of the sculptural art of Endgame, and Foster duly notes the masterstroke of fetishism contained within that modernist master's work. Considering this, one wonders just what Duchamp would think if he were to see (for instance) Haim Steinbach's work nearly three quarters of a century after “Fountain.” Foster uses the example of Steinbach and Jeff Koons as artists who have purportedly transcended Duchamp with their readymades, but these artists have merely concretized the institutionalization of commodified fetishism in art. Koons, at least, makes it a little more fun than functional.

Foster proceeds, critiquing the work of late 1970s painter Julian Schnabel as lacking mastery due to his (barely) coded sexual fetishism: “Here, then, the work of art discloses what it disavows, and is again seized by fetishism with all the violence of its contradictions...” (95). Yet, when Foster continues along the same tack, using the commodity fetishism of Koons, Steinbach, etc., he describes it as “a fact at once obvious and enigmatic.” (95). It appears that, at some point in postmodernist critique, it needed to be suddenly understood that the sign/symbol had to be abandoned as an idea referent and re-instituted as a neutral and literal signifier. Therefore, it is within this specific mandate that one must approach Koons' “Two Ball Equilibrium” and not see testicles - just a couple of Spalding basketballs suspended in a tank. [This is decidedly more difficult with Koons, when one looks ahead to the hypersexualized fetishism of the 1991 exhibition “Made in Heaven.”] For all one knows, this forced state of insistence is the answer to Foster's query, “...the tension between art and commodity... has it somehow collapsed?” (96).

Concern over this may be a non-issue, however. Foster later espouses the nascent pluralism in the kitsch/commodity fetish work of Koons: “ was precisely the commodity that destroyed artistic aura in the first place... it effectively turns the readymade from a device that demystifies art into one that remystifies it.” (100).

A“premature” argument that may now be addressed is Foster's distillation of Baudrillard's hypothesis that “all primitivisms are corrupt and all surrealisms are futile.” (103). Is kitsch truly outmoded as an artistically conceptual basis of hyper-realization? In the 25 years since Endgame, this argument may have borne itself out. Kitsch, in postmodern art, has moved far from the point of elevated, commodified fetishism. Contemporary subculture has seen to this, adopting and recycling kitsch as an irony-supersaturated meme, rendering it sufficiently neutral, if not neutered. When recontextualized cliché becomes itself outmoded, it becomes akin to salt that has lost its saltiness.

With the consistent appearance of readymades, the looming specter of Warhol, and the adoption of decades-old parodies as new paradigms, it might give one the impression that Endgame is inconsistent with the tenets of the postmodern. That is, postmodernism's ultimate goal (as with all art movements before it) is to advance itself, to further elaborate upon our changing contemporary condition. Yet, in mimicking modernism with a kind of nuanced imitation in mind, it is successful - in its time – but it is painfully short-lived. Contemporary consumer culture is rehashing itself at alarmingly greater chronological rate. In order to “sell” such a backtracking to the consumer, a heavy dose of irony must be ingested with our daily intake of culture. As the speed of salvage is ever increased, contemporary art must reflect these changes. The simple mimetics of Endgame are no longer enough; art can no longer respond with such axiomatic reflectivity. A far more pluralistic, all-encompassing approach must be taken to the artistic field of battle, as Martha Schwendener intimates: “Those battles are distilled into a different kind of mandate: It's more than just OK to conflate Ab-Ex and Pop, Burchfield and Mitchell, or Johns and Bridget Riley - it's expected. Painting now can function... at the center of the market or within the endgame of postmodernism (or post-postmodernism). Its status, like everything else in the art world, could change at any minute.” (2).

List of Works Cited:

Crow, Thomas. “The Return of Hank Herron.” Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture. Ed. David Joselin and Elisabeth Sussman. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986. 11-27. Print

Foster, Hal. “The Future of an Illusion.” Joselin/Sussman 91-105.

Nash, Matthew. “The Endgame of Postmodernism.” Big RED & Shiny, Inc. 13 January 2009. Web. 25 April 2010.

Schwenender, Martha. “Eva Lundsager, R.H. Quaytman, and Mary Heilman Brush Up on Their Painting.” The Village Voice. 20 January 2009. Web. 29 April 2010

Sussman, Elisabeth. “The Last Picture Show.” Joselin/Sussman 51-69.

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