Distinction or Dichotomy?

John Haber
in New York City

Necessity, the Handmade, and Conceptual Art

In the late 1980s and 1990s, painting did not complain so much as endure. Painters worked, often heroically, largely to silence. They maintained some of century's great work and inspired new work. Now painting is back, but with an unfocused anger that from week to week may target busy installations or empty ones, political or conceptual art, new and old media. Ken Johnson soon joined in, calling instead for a ban on performance art, just as Marina Abramovic gained welcome attention at last. So many others have ceased performing and entered memory.

How exactly did painting get such a chip on its shoulder? In two articles two days apart, Roberta Smith of The New York Times took on the art world. She asked whether shows, including shows she admired, were crowding out the vitality of art today. They were, she feared, creating a "new master narrative," centered on big boys with macho gallery installations and chilly, near empty museum exhibitions.

But one line leaped out for many artists:

What's missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting.

To many, it became a rallying cry—including a cry for an art that Smith herself surely never intended. It also became the inspiration for a panel at the 2010 Verge art fair, "Distinction or Dichotomy?" The moderator Camilla Fallon, invited me, and here is what I hoped to say. In a postscript, I add an important contrast to inner necessity, self-doubt. (A line from there made it into my talk, when I spoke without notes.) Rembrandt's Elephant (Albertina, 1637)

It is a good topic for me, too. I compared Matthew Barney to football halftime shows back in 2003. I have trashed art that trashes the gallery or empties it, between installation and architecture, and yet I have called it less insider art than generation X art. I have asked about money and complicity in the arts, with expansions and bad architecture only reinforcing oppressive museum institutions, as Smith herself points out. Yet I have also embraced theory, admired installations in near empty rooms, found old media in unfamiliar spaces, looked for lessons for art and commerce in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, compared Minimalism to Surrealism, watched painting become architecture and collage become painting, and I have criticized critics like Ken Johnson who do dive deeply into the ideas behind works of art. So here I go!

The elephant in the room

Thank you. As Camilla said, I am very much a digital person.

While I write regularly for print, I owe whatever reputation I have as a critic to the Web. Friends online got me writing twenty years ago, and I got my own domain just a few years later. I added a blog for short updates in 2002. The site now contains reviews of at least a thousand artists, some for thousands of words apiece. I have also written about those articles by Roberta Smith. I hope you will look, because I shall try my best not to repeat the same points here.

As a digital person in a discussion of the handmade, I feel like a fox in the chicken coop, so thank you for welcoming me. If it is any consolation, let me reassure you of three things. I have not checked my iPhone in days, I do not own a Kindle, and I hate Jeff Koons. But seriously about that Kindle. Not that I miss fine binding or care all that much about the feeling of a book in my hands, although I relish the unique artist's book. I am just too cheap.

I hate the thought of spending a few hundred bucks up front for the privilege of buying and reading the same text anyway. And that has a lesson for me here. When we focus on the individual and the handmade, we can easily miss what matters in the experience of art. We can also miss the proverbial elephant in the room, money. I worry that Roberta Smith misses it, when she mistakes a mere handful of big, overblown shows for a new paradigm. And I think we do, too, if we let our idea of contemporary art become polarized between a nostalgia for the craft of painting, on the one hand, and conceptual art or big shows, on the other.

We can already see the poles break down with Smith. One day, she writes about big, sloppy art objects. The next she writes about empty museums. So which is it? Is the problem that art is too hot or too cold? Is it too egotistical or too collective?

And where does that leave you? For an answer, I want to give an alternative history of conceptual art, one that can find a more vital or troubling contemporary culture in a merging of contemporary art and abstraction. And, as you will see, that comes right down to a history of art, period. Of course, I cannot offer a true survey of Western art in the next five minutes. So if I skip over your favorite artist or even century, I apologize in advance. I shall skip over most of my own, too.

A history of conceptual art

Suppose we start even before the Renaissance, with the great Gothic cathedrals. Now, architecture is obviously a collaborative art, and these buildings took untold numbers of anonymous individuals. They labored over plans and correspondences to religious ideals. They carved stone into a shared vocabulary of arches, vaults, buttresses, and gargoyles that still inspire awe today. You might think of them as an early approach to Richard Serra and Tilted Arc, only better. I should not dream of linking them to boy toys in galleries, but I have no doubt that some of the worst excesses today hope for the same sense of grandeur.

The idea of collaboration had changed by Renaissance painting, but the workshop remained central. Museums are still looking for traces of Leonardo in paintings by his teacher, Verrocchio. For centuries, Raphael stood for genius, but he used his workshop on the Vatican frescoes. Michelangelo did not, at least for long, but he could not tolerate anyone not up to his own standards. That basically meant everyone. He was still the exception that proved the rule.

Collaboration extended to ideas, too. Early Renaissance painters were not just copying nature. They were painting what was for them reality, a religious or secular ideal. They were learning from what today we would call annoying academic theorists, meaning religious scholars or Leon Battista Alberti on linear perspective. That is why many people find the Old Masters difficult. It is why art historians pore over old texts. It is why they look for symbols within paintings, what you may have heard called iconography, to understand art better and to appreciate it more—for themselves and others.

Now skip way ahead to Claude Monet. If you told him, in his early days alongside Pierre-Auguste Renoir, that you could not tell their work apart, he would take it as a compliment. He was not interested in the mark of his own hand, but the truth—in light, in color, and in painting. The same with Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, as at the Pompidou Center. I have been studying them for over thirty years, and I know Braque's elegance and Picasso's angular energy, but I still get them wrong half the time. And do not forget that Picasso back then threw a monkey wrench into the handmade with the first collage, the start of what we would call appropriation.

And so it goes, generation after generation. Was Wassily Kandinsky the abstract painter driven by "the spiritual in art"? Or was he one of the first teachers at the Bauhaus, which sought to commodify great art and design for everyone? When Jackson Pollock made his first drip paintings, was he trying to leave his mark? Or had he learned the limits of his earlier, fussier brushwork? Had he realized that to break free he had to trust to chance?

How about the color-field painters, who first introduced me to art? It changed my life to watch a friend at work. We shared an illegal loft, and those were the days before the elephant in the room. Were painters then in love with the translucency of oil? Or were they out to eliminate personal traces in favor of the nature and geometry of the art object? Why not both?

Art without ideas

I could give many more examples, but you get the idea. Even the first performance and conceptual artists were trying to humanize art. They felt that imitation of the past had sucked the life out of realism and abstraction alike. They wanted to put the artist and viewer in touch, as individuals. I may make fun of Tino Sehgal, but even he wants to do much the same. He wants to give you that one-on-one encounter with another person, a museum's architecture, and mortality—as you meet first a child and then older collaborators.

Do I mean that all art is conceptual art? Of course not, although even every artist's book is still a book, with words and ideas in its "feverish library" as much as paper and binding. Even Analytic Cubism was among the most beautifully crafted painting ever made. Its brown tone and not just its subject matter make me think of vintage violins. Am I saying, then, that all art is both conceptual and an object? Not necessarily, for that choice is up to each and every artist.

Rather, I want to leave you with two conclusions. Both have to do with why this whole panel topic, frankly, has me scared. It makes me worry that we are validating a notion of painting that would have been laughable at almost any point in the past. It is not about going back to a time before David Salle, Andy Warhol, or Dada—or maybe Gutenberg and movable type. It is about whether we look at art like far too much of the general public. Ever notice that most people really like only Impressionism and Vincent van Gogh? And that they have little sense of either one?

First, forget talk of inner necessity. Only a fool would take up art, rather than an MBA, except out of inner necessity. That applies as much to lousy artists like Damien Hirst as to anyone else. If you ask me, he could stand less inner necessity and more doubts. The only serious question is whether art is a necessity in turn for others. That means viewers, like you and me.

And second, the handmade is no guarantee of inner necessity. In fact, it may take that away. When concepts enter art, they do not ruin it. They do not make art a mere slave of academic trends. Rather, art without ideas is only a style. And art that is only a style is derivative and empty.

Thank you.

A postscript: failure and anonymity

When Mira Schor wrote "On Failure and Anonymity," she meant the kind imposed on an artist. At her reading one Saturday, I had to marvel that the essay dates to 1990. Artists lived closer to the margins then, especially woman artists. She could never have imagined the pressure of success and celebrity that makes her essay sound new. No wonder Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida asked her to contribute to "#class." Then again, she does call her collection A Decade of Negative Thinking.

For all that, failure and anonymity have other meanings. Schor speaks of how work never lives up to the artist's idea. For other artists, that gap comes with the thrill of self-discovery. Still, she captures something important. art speaks to something more than inspiration. It speaks to culture and society, collective aims and a divided consciousness.

Who lies behind art's images? Often as not, it is someone with perplexities and divisions. People often say that artists suffer more than their share of depression, and some evidence backs that up. The market alone could have anyone depressed. Along with "intense personal necessity," I want to remember the doubts. As a postscript that could not make it into my panel presentation, I want in fact to cherish the doubts.

Students come with all sorts of needs. They can feel lost, wondering if they will ever understand what is going on, or all too confident. They may not even realize how much their inner necessity depends on others—and how their work parrots trends. A good teacher provides support along with questions. With the new clout of a few MFA programs, I worry less that students are learning to exchange inner necessity for cynicism. I worry more that they are learning to trust their success.

Something like that happened on Wall Street. We are not selling out, MBAs thought. We rule. In bravura installations, as in the Dakis Joannou collection at the New Museum, frat boys rule, too. They are not cynical but trusting—in simple ideas and simple pleasures. When artists feel excluded and boast of the handmade, they think they are special as well.

And well they should, but it is no excuse for cheap excuses. It is certainly no excuse to latch onto a few words by Roberta Smith out of context. When Smith writes that good work often "seems" made from necessity, she describes its effect on others. I do not want to defend any one style, especially painting that relies on nostalgia or conceptual art without an idea in its head. Rather, I want an art born of failure and anonymity. The necessity is real, but so are doubt and discovery.

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I presented something like this at the Dylan Hotel on March 6, 1010, for the Verge art fair. Also on the panel with Camilla Fallon were Lisa Beck, Dennis Kardon, Jill Connor, and Peter Reginato.


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