Fun, Fun, Fun

John Haber
in New York City

Yoko Ono and Bridget Riley

I was talking to myself again the other day. Worse, my postmodern half was listening.

Why, we were trying to figure out, is everyone having so much fun? Take two artists at such opposite extremes as self-display and self-effacement, conceptual art and painting, political art and abstraction. Yoko Ono is back with her bed-in for peace. After decades of Op Art, Bridget Riley still makes one's head spin, but without side-effects. Bridget Riley's Poppy (PaceWildenstein, 1982)

What happened to serious art, and should I miss it? Oh, no doubt at times, perhaps, each of these artists comes off as a one-liner, but what a line, and somehow I still laugh. More to the point, I still respect the joke. Perhaps art even began in a very human sense of play, and some curious things indeed have happened along the way.

Serious guys

So what, if anything, is wrong with having fun? After all, Postmodernism always wanted to replace the illusion of self-expression with a social dialogue. Let me conduct one with myself.

John the modernist was insisting on sober art's dissent from society. Art incorporates anything from soup cans to nuts barely out of alcohol rehab, but always with its own aims. Its dissent can give a viewer the highest pleasures—the freshness of seeing, the necessity of finding meanings, and the freedom to disturb them and even leave them behind.

Ohhhh, no, I said sternly, we shall have none of that. It was you modernists who showed how to break down the barriers between high and low, after centuries of hiding homelier art forms in cloisters and reading rooms. It was you who turned fine art to private gardens and table lamps. And forget about pleasure. Institutional power, from gift shops to gender bias, has corrupted both art and pop culture pretty much alike. Postmodernism shakes both of them, not to mention you, until you have learned your lesson.

The debate went on and on, because critical debates are like that, and because one-dimensional stereotypes last longest, even stereotypes of modern art. Besides, Modernism and Postmodernism really do sustain themselves in this lively art scene by appropriating each other's stratagems. And they agree on something. Art may or may not sit distinct from ordinary things, but one had better take it seriously. Even Andy Warhol found a world so troubling that it could exist only on the margins, in the media, and in Warhol's influence.

The circus is in town. One sees it everywhere. From the lines alone, I could easily mistake museums for theme parks. With its increasing density of galleries, Chelsea and its "battle for Babylon" is coming to resemble the art world's largest, costliest block party. Millennial group shows offer Fred Astaire, sliding ponds, and live birds. In any case, the system rewards minimal attention spans. Spot the artist and move right along.

Those big solo shows carry the same message. However, they do more. They show how modern art kept alive the hope of a living theater, one that invites the audience on stage. They let one see how artists have dealt best with the carnival by an awareness of the part they play. Once they lose that awareness, or way too often, the pageant takes over, and the viewer moves on.

Black suits and flowing dresses

Just months before a Yoko Ono retrospective, a fellow Fluxus graduate, Nam June Paik, filled the Guggenheim with flashing lights, and sometimes I did move on too quickly. Yet the movement meant more than short attention spans. John Cage can mix a spooky sincerity with dry, cutting, self-aware humor. He belongs to a side of Fluxus—and modern art—willing to accept pleasure, to reflect on it, and to let it pass without too big a smile or a sermon. To find that side again, I had to walk by a small building on a wide plaza bathed in sunlight off the East River. The Japan Society looks back at Ono's long career.

What is harder to approach than the most familiar? And who is more familiar than the people one meets on TV? I may never know Lennon and Ono, not when I have John and Yoko. It leaves her more vivid but too distant, as if she stood for the childish stunts I did back then, when, unlike her, I actually was little.

I had admired the bronzes of her recent exhibitions, if all too ready to enter the museum. How strange, then, to see her as a whole, from a cold-water loft to public statements with Lennon and beyond. Look at that, the ladder leading up to the ceiling with the word Yes, the very word that Lennon viewed through a magnifying glass and took for his own. Oh, look, the film of more than one hundred buttocks, the chess set all in white, the board in which each gallery-goer could once hammer a nail. One smiles, because to laugh out loud would be to laugh at something, and her chess game will never have a loser.

In works like these, Ono mixes lyricism with Fluxus's spontaneity. She reacted in horror the first time someone suggested that she turn to bronze. Yet her idealism always makes me think of fine art, if not sculpture. Her art depends on words, often her handwritten inscriptions, to make it so calming, so still. The room, they say, stretches for thousands of feet, tapers to a single point, and moves as fast as the clouds—but perhaps as slowly as the word Yes.

Even at her most outrageous, she stays simple, vulnerable, and sensual as her haikus to formalism. In one performance, the audience members snip away her clothes until, after forty minutes, they leave her all but naked, with just her small body, black suit, and refusal to smile. Charlotte Moorman, better known as the musician to Paik's TV cello, later made the piece her own, but only by giving it a raunchy, exhibitionist humor. Something had changed.

I thought of the change when I saw another side of the fun house, from a generation later. In a big survey of the Modern's holdings since 1960, Pipilotti Rist seems worlds away from the somber tone of Hill or Viola. Her video seems at first even like a deodorant commercial, but only to invite her in to a disorienting, personal, and feminist space. Like Ono, she can still take on a serious issue like the body in art, mostly female, while joining the pageant.

From art to archive

Ono calls that all-white chess set Play It By Trust. Art depends on accepting and understanding illusion. So why not a sense of play as well?

In interviews, Ono sometimes denied her critical role in Fluxus. She was reacting to the pains of the perpetual outsider—the Asian banker's American daughter in yet another of art's male clubs. She was coping, however, with something else as well, the problem of holding onto that balance, between a joke and a work of art. Ono gives pleasure and makes one think about giving pleasure, but without ever doubting it. It makes her still part of the carnival now, never giving in to it and yet never quite upsetting it. Her refusal to smile fits a woman in search of a role in it to call her own.

Lennon, who knew the media circus from the inside, disturbed the balance. Like her, he never smiles when they perform together—unless, in bed, because he has just awoken to see her beside him. Yet his dry refusal to smile, unlike hers, marks the consummate urban joker. As they play white chess together, he stacks the pieces into a crazy tower before pretending to swallow them. With her precarious focus on the sensual body and hiding away in dreams, she inserts them one by one down her dress.

At that moment, the balance is perfect, but not for long. I find their idealism a little too remote once Lennon injects politics into the mix. They both wanted to change the world by transforming each individual's mind. Yet now art's expansion of consciousness has a heavy burden, of ending war one person at a time. That politics reminds me of a die-hard modernist's refusal to confront institutions. As Ono got over Lennon's death, she regained her balance, but not always the rare and pungent beauty. She often recycles the old ideas, this time for a museum.

The Japan Society disturbs the balance once again. This retrospective has no doubts that it is dealing with a Serious Artist. One enters not a performance but an archive, with the demand to read absolutely everything. In other words, the show necessarily plays the institutional games of a museum.

So it piles films of performances upon Ono's own films, labels explaining it all on those spare, haiku-like words. At her best, one never knows for sure where the work begins—but that poses an exchange with the viewer, not a cataloguing issue for the librarian. Somehow, the cascade of references creates a strangely deadening sensation. One can no longer climb that ladder to affirmation or hammer a nail into the board. They have become art objects now. They have become sculpture after all.

Working spaces

One more survivor from the 1960s, before the comedy of today. Bridget Riley knows the media circus in her own way. It stuck the British artist in the next big thing, Op Art, before passing her by. At last she gets a small retrospective at the Dia Center, with its deep commitment to a single artist, plus a strong gallery show of recent work. They could stand for the conundrum of entertainment value.

Riley began entirely in black-and-white. In the early 1980s, however, she turned to thin vertical stripes of color. Then came jumbled parallelograms. More recently still, she uses large, curved areas of acid but muted green, blue, yellow, and orange, like a computer (or digital artist, if one can find what makes it novel as art yet) trying to create a Lee Krasner by algorithm.

As one walks in, many look boring as anything. Up very close, though, the parallelograms begin to overlap in some imagined larger space, then flutter wildly. The verticals vibrate, while white stripes at regular intervals hold out the faint hope of clarity. The blandest of all, the curves, just bend slightly, with tantalizing hints of symmetry along the diagonal—symmetry that, as in a Jasper Johns crosshatch painting, never comes at all true. Strangely enough, the effects do not go away once one steps back, and I treasure that strangeness.

She insists on careful, handmade work, but with razor-sharp edges that back off from an artist's presence. Like Frank Stella, she began with iconic black paintings. Like him, she now sticks to geometry and flat areas of color to emphasize its relation to a picture plane, all the while thrusting viewers into insane spaces. Like him, too, she comes from the discovery back in the 1950s of big pictures, with the juxtaposition of two scales of experience. From afar, art is art, an object of serious contemplation. Up close, it is something more human, if not downright funky.

Riley could well be fulfilling Stella's Harvard lectures on art, Working Space, and like him or someone as close to him as Nancy Rubins, she increasingly offers bland but serious fun. Conservatives go on long screeds about the decline in values. They ignore the part their very values play in the mess. Dealers, after all, act out the allegedly free market, and museums pander simultaneously to individual choice and to wealthy donors. Meanwhile, the attack dances past the way art really does survive, with work that grips me or makes me smile.

Right now, the pageant really does amount to an art world without a center. With no one big thing, people just get to try lots of little things. And some shows do cave in and settle for the smile. However, like Ono, Rist, or Riley, the best know when to focus on the smile. They know how to turn it on even more brightly when serious issues come up, even if that smile is still giving me the highway blues.

The theater before the carnival

To comprehend the world and to abstain from it. That twin impulse pretty much defines the avant-garde—except for one thing. Art knows all too well the impossibility of its own dream.

Conservatives miss the point. Modernism never fled into abstraction. It wants every last bit of this world. Its tactics range from brute subject matter to the brutality of paint. It includes the obsessive division of a canvas and of perception. It picks up every last shard found along the way.

One can see Modernism's twin movement most clearly in another tactic, a work in series. I mean the rigorously extensible moment of painting, whether in Monet's Waterlilies, Mondrian's rectangles, or Warhol's Marilyn. These devices drag time into art as its long-missing dimension.

Michael Fried famously argued that Minimalism marks the end of Modernism, because it substitutes theater for disengaged contemplation. However, Modernism reveled in one aspect of performance well before it evolved into performance art. Theater must take time, a time shared by performers and their audience, yet a time itself subject to illusion. This, after all, is art.

In a sense, then, Modernism's rigor never turns its back on a quaint idea right out of Tiepolo's Baroque, art as theater. Still, it tries to avoid five-act tragedies. When real time intrudes, it only undermines the illusion of greater narratives in time. One can assemble the items of a modernist series in more or less any order. The random parts in an assemblage decay in time, but more or less at random.

Contrary to a standard interpretation of Cubism, then, modern art's theater does not copy stop-action photography. It only disrupts the present.

From performance to play

Postmodernism has so discomforted politicians for much the same mix of reality and refusal. It rubs one's nose in things, from elephant dung and Super Mario to politics in the multimedia age. It struggles hard to rub Modernism's nose in them along way, too.

Postmodernism stresses the dream's impossibility, but only to play off against the same impulses. Art, it insists, never escapes from co-optation by the real world of power and influence. Only one knew that already. And now one shouts it—with a demand to represent the world ever more fully and to complain about it all the more forcefully. Meanwhile, Postmodernism marks a return to more traditional theatrical devices, because now everything counts as just a story. Everyone comes with illusions. No wonder performance in art became more obvious starting in the 1960s—the moment of Fried's attack on Minimalism.

Of course, Postmodernism, too, disrupts the stories it tells. One needed that funny word performance to displace the more relaxed associations with the word play. If everything amounts to one more narrative, none can have authority.

So artists can try to express themselves and have fun. They can turn that to serious purposes and let everyone know they are playing along, with barely the hint of a smile or a mean smirk. They can put the game behind them. Or they can live with the impossibility of escape. Not everyone, naturally, gets that far. Some boys and girls just want to have fun.

No wonder Robert Rauschenberg, with those blatantly useless Rauschenberg combines, hovers more like a ghost than a teacher these days. One sees them in sets of old tires and piled trash at the Whitney's 2000 Biennial. His quarter-mile-long installations could serve as its map. Hey, one needs a map when one goes through all the rooms in an alternative space today, such as P.S. 1. But what would the map show?

Modernism long celebrated the free play that Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian theorist, celebrated as carnival. Perhaps the best way to understand Modernism's unsettling theater, then, is to live with the bad days, when the carnival collapses into a silly performance. Just remember—some days, even without Buddha or a dream of perpetual peace, one can still find that smile.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Yes: Yoko Ono" ran at the Japan Society Gallery through January 14, 2001. Bridget Riley's retrospective, "Reconnaissance," ran through June 17, 2001, at The Dia Center for the Arts, and her "Recent Editions" ran at PaceWildenstein through October 21, 2000. A related review takes up Yoko Ono in the 1960s.


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