Fear and Loathing in Modern Art

John Haber
in New York City

Egon Schiele in the Leopold Collection

Peter Halley: New Concepts in Printmaking

I never really enjoy Expressionism. I am suspicious of its conventional, decorative idea of beauty; I hate its all but religious loathing of the flesh. Maybe it explains why I also dislike some of the raunchier, most publicized art today—and why I find protest against "shock art" so trite and offensive. Egon Schiele's Mourning Woman (Leopold Collection, 1912)

No doubt in spirit, not to mention geography, those shrill installations in New York and London these days are far from central Europe. But Modernism's shock has to keep changing its faces simply to exist. A show at New York's Museum of Modern Art places it in Austria, the country of Schoenberg and Wittgenstein—and the country of Egon Schiele.

Another show, also at the Modern, looks for an antidote to all the Expressionist shouting. The artist is Peter Halley, and he fails, I think, to find the cure. Together, the two shows give the whole idea of accessibility in art a history.

Conventional shocks

The terrors of Expressionism might be inseparable from modern art, but the movement truly was conventional to the core. As my mention of decorative arts and religion suggests, Expressionism always clings to the past like a wet, prickly blanket. To see something as offensive, one must see it first as a distortion, a violation of norms that refuse to go away. Other artists in those critical years before World War I preferred to move the norms.

Sure, for the great modernists, all the old ways are still there. When Robert Delauney paints the Eiffel Tower or Chaim Soutine a volcanic landscape, one sees it not as realistic, but as crumbling apart and taking flight. What happens is that old norms remain explicit, but as something cast aside, something from which art provides liberation. Kandinsky makes the same move on his way from landscape to abstraction.

German and Austrian Expressionists, in contrast, seem quaintly backward and repressed, even as they wear on their sleeve all the old world's layers of guilt and repression. They want to offend and to suffer simultaneously. The combination is also why Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian, could create such decent political posters.

I admit all that, because I learned it anew from a surprisingly fresh and intriguing show. It contains, I shall wager, about thirty paintings by Egon Schiele and well over one hundred drawings, all from one source, the Leopold collection in Vienna. Given the artist's death from influenza at age 28, that quantity amounts to a reasonable retrospective.

Schiele's work still looks to me like nude centerfolds for a journal of sexually transmitted disorders. Compared to the art that wore its emotions on its sleeve from the Renaissance to the twentieth century—of Boticelli, Hugo van der Goes, van Gogh, or Arshile Gorky—Schiele's suffering comes out of nowhere, while his anger is fixed determinedly in past art.

I am finding, however, that any art this hung-up presupposes enormous skill and radical implications. I enjoyed the show enormously.

Scaring oneself

Schiele suggests that the necessary first step in offending others is to offend oneself. A genuinely shocking art cannot afford arrogance. Jeff Koons in New York today or the Chapman brothers in England may be smug, but they really want their audience to grin like insiders. Schiele wanted to shock. Only a nightmare could express his hatred of bourgeois Austria and his loving perception of nature's melancholy. The combination adds up to a fascination with self-loathing.

Schiele appears to experience revulsion at the human body, but revulsion implies a turning away. His ego is too strong for that and, perversely enough, too healthy. The many self-portraits are horrifying, but they never intend a withering self-examination. Nudity never precludes playing a part, and Schiele's part is hardly the artist.

He and his future wife appear again and again as saints, sinners, or lovers, as superhuman sufferers or bare flesh. In his rapid sketches before a mirror, he adopts poses that seem to leave no room for him to observe and to hold a brush. His pen or palette is never on view. Only the decorative veneer of Expressionism reminds one that he is locked into a game of fine art.

Besides revealing so much of Schiele's complex attitude, the show also makes clear that he could draw. His mentor, Gustave Klimt, nurtured his economical draftsmanship. A human outline is reduced to just a few lines, shading to a bare touch. When he is not exposing his or his model's crotch, drapery makes an eerie synecdoche for private parts. And it works.

I also saw a side of Schiele new to me, stark landscapes of 1912. A tree intertwines with an autumnal sky that could almost be a rock face. A shed in dark green and brown plummets into three dimensions, as if it dares the artist to continue Klimt's flattening of depth. It dares the artist to continue shocking himself.

Opening the circuit

Meanwhile, the back room in the drawing galleries turns to an artist who can fear and loathe only Expressionism. Peter Halley, a contemporary painter known for his cool abstractions, takes over the joint. In the past he has filled block-like outlines with black, grey, and pale shades of yellow and pink. It looked like circuit diagrams for the simple-minded—or prison bars for the unwary. He applied his color mechanically but not flatly, at times with a thick, rubbery medium that makes the art even more industrial.

Now Halley wallpapers a room from floor to ceiling, and the one familiar bit comes across as a footnote to the artist, if within a very peculiar thesis. These walls include flowcharts about behavior modification and what I could easily call cartoon landscapes. Is he softening up, or is his attack on fine art extending from the grand old color-field painters to Keith Haring's followers—and even the subtle pleasures of Stephen Westfall's geometric painting today? A soft Halley amounts to a contradiction in terms.

Halley, you see, is always on the attack, only one has to be enrolled in his legions even to know. Thanks to his difficult prose, one can say that he provides what I shall kindly call textbook illustrations for postmodernist theory.

Critics these days often see art as rather less liberating than painters like to think. Museums have become giant corporate institutions with equally corporate sponsorship; galleries are in business to make money. Both serve their purpose by categorizing artists and publics. In one famous theory dear to the heart of modern painters, they (and not the typically offended public) get to define art itself.

Critics have learned, too, from Michel Foucault, the philosopher and social critic. They often point to art's faith in the individual, but not as a sign of creativity and artistic freedom. No, instead they connect an all-encompassing observer to the system of penal institutions and mental homes. Halley goes on from there in his own curious fashion, creating visual parallels between the color fields in abstract painting and, yes, prison cells, circuit diagrams, and flowcharts.

Well, okay, Peter and Michel, yawn, lessons over. Please, I have to go home now. But I found a curious relief in the extravaganza of his new installation. It reminded me that painting and individualism have implications that not even he can control. Even as Peter Halley contracts art to a prison, his artistic, unrealistic restrictions of actual circuitry show the limits of his own propaganda.

Shock treatments

The broader public thinks of "shock art" and the trendy Brit pack as an offense against decency. A few Romantics prefer instead to see Expressionism as a gesture of creative rebellion. Thankfully, it is both, but it is also more. It is above all a creation of its time, of a collision between past and present. Before art can shock, there must be a series of shocks, each with its moment in art history.

In the Renaissance, artists were more than willing to offend. When art had the tough job of promoting a nation or a god, clearly someone out there had to suffer for it.

Modernism offended, too, but because the job had changed. The anger at Manet's nude Olympia, like the protests at the first performances of twentieth-century music and theater, meant the first true shocks in art. Manet shocked by asking what purposes art and its viewer can share, other than making art.

Before long, artists had reflected on their art long enough to stop taking shock as merely inevitable. With Schiele and others, it became personal. With works such as a urinal from Marcel Duchamp or Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup, it became self-conscious. It tested the limits of art institutions and human understanding.

Once Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, the meaning of shock in art was about to change once more. Now art had entered more than the museum. It had had its fifteen minutes of fame, and it had reached a culture calculated to deaden shock. In Andy Warhol's silkscreens, such as the automobile crashes and Warhol Shadows, deadening can have a poignancy and shock of its own.

After shock

Robert Rauschenberg changed things once again with his most famous image, Rauschenberg's stuffed goat with an automobile tire round its neck. Before Andy Warhol, it looked ahead to a strange time after the poignancy is gone: it looked ahead to today. With it, he opened the trap of shock for its own sake, with no real consequences outside of art. With it, too, shock had discovered the still-greater freedom of an accompanying laughter. Art at its very best is still laughing.

Halley and Schiele share more than they think. Ironically, they share it with the English shocked by dead cows in the Royal Academy. They accept the burden of self-consciousness as they overlook its history. Their laughter is caught in their throat. Schiele's art movingly draws pain and virtuosity out of the dry, catching sound. Halley may be getting a laugh despite himself.

Like Hamlet's "Denmark's a prison," his fancy analogies set out to reduce the world, but they remind one of art's power to unleash metaphor. If Schiele plays a part to achieve expression, Halley uses fictions to debunk artistic freedom. They are two sides of the same circuit board.

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"Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna" ran through April 20, 1998, at The Museum of Modern Art. Peter Halley's installation ran through February 8.


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