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Julian Schnabel and friends, from New York Magazine

Gretchen Mol and her pinkie toe, from New York Magazine

Leon Golub
Head XXV
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga

Leon Golub
Ho Chi Minh
Seraphin Gallery, Philadelphia

Leon Golub
Mercenaries III
Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Leon Golub at his 2001 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Charles Biederman
Work #4
Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York

Charles Biederman
New York, September 1935
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Charles Biederman
Work #27, Redwing
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Charles Biederman, 1946

Irreverent Truths
by Gorgon

An example of an artist making a fool of himself and enjoying it, otherwise known as doing anything for publicity: Julian Schnabel, responding to the question "What do you wear to bed?", answers, "I wear my pajamas before I go to bed. When I get in bed, I take them off. I wear pajamas like other people wear clothes." This is alongside a photograph of Schnabel and Joel Schumacher kissing (New York Magazine, Dec. 6, 2004, p. 24). Recall the model of Madonna and Britney Spears kissing -- popular culture again leads the way, especially to fake and facile perversity.

Other important art celebrity news from New York Magazine (Jan. 3, 2005, p. 17): a photograph of Brice and Helen Marden smiling at "A Party in Honor of Christian Louboutin's New Store, Diane von Furstenberg Studio, December 13."

Even more socially telling art news on the same page: the actress Gretchen Mol, responding to the question "What piece of art do you most covet -- and what would you pay for it?", answers: "The Roden Crater, by James Turrell. He uses natural light and space to make a crater into a work of art. It's very spiritual. I'd give my pinkie toe." Do you think Turrell would sell it for that? Mol's clever narcissistic remark -- the crater is big, her pinkie toe is small -- calls attention to her body (better that than her face, which is remarkably blank) and tells us everything we need to know about the attitude towards art in a celebrity culture.

Leon Golub, who died last August, was a crude little man who hustled his way to reputation by way of relentless socializing and entertaining, and with the help of Lawrence Alloway and Donald Kuspit, who made him relevant when everyone else thought he was irrelevant. He was hardly the lovable character the Artnet Magazine obituary said he was, but he was the arrogant, hostile character he showed himself to be in many of his works. The physiognomy of many of the aggressors resembles his, and the contempt and sadism of his soldiers reflect his own attitude.

Golub moved to New York from Chicago because his career was going nowhere, and he launched himself on the New York scene by attacking, in print, Abstract Expressionism, including Jackson Pollock's work. That's certainly one way to get attention: his monsters didn't give him the recognition he desperately desired -- New York had its own. (Golub was one among many artists on what Franz Schulz called Chicago's "Monster Roster.")

His "breakthrough" came when he adapted the red ground of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis for his own purposes: he needed something to pass as "modernist." But he vulgarized -- "brutalized" is his word -- Newman's refined surface, indicating his opposition to fine art -- or was Golub incapable of making it? -- of which abstract art is the climactic statement.

Golub quickly settled into a formula -- dull flat planes and inert clumsy figures, both mock monumental -- which Newman, ever sensitive to nuance, never did. There was indeed good reason for Golub to call his art "brutal realism" -- it reflected his own brutality, which masked his ineptness. Thus Golub gained a certain amount of attention piggybacking on Newman.

But he got more attention because of his opposition to the Vietnam War -- as though that made him unique. More broadly, he gained attention because of his generalized anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism: he painted a benign Ho Chi Min and a malevolent Nelson Rockefeller. (Shades of Socialist Realism.) Would Golub have been more comfortable in a Communist totalitarian society than in the American society that allowed him to speak his mind via his painting? His work has limited credibility. It is a species of realism, without the perceptual sophistication of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth. In other words, Golub is an American Scene painter with a one-sided view of America and limited artistic skills.

Compare him to Charles Biederman, who also died recently. Biederman was a recluse who lived in Minnesota. He had shown in New York, and had a certain amount of success, but the art world came to ignore him, in part because he did not move to New York -- he preferred a different kind of wilderness -- and in larger part because his art did not address current events. It steered clear of the commonplace. Instead, it extended modernist perceptual and constructivist concerns.

Biederman's works are abstract geometrical color constructions, carrying Cézanne's and Mondrian's ideas into three dimensional space. They are visual thinking at its abstract best. Subtly fusing structural transcendence and pure color sensation, he gives us a fresh, lively sense of the sublimity of geometry. His works are intimately sublime, as it were -- a free-spirited, expressive geometry, in which every detail is precisely calculated, down to the detail of its affective resonance. Geometry has once again become enigmatic and exuberant in Biedermans ingenious sculptures and wall works.

Biederman was quite conscious of what he was doing and what his place was in the history of abstract art. His books on the development of modern art -- Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge (1948), Letters on the New Art (1951), The New Cézanne (1958), Search for the New Arts (1979), Art-Science-Reality (1988), The Dehumanization and Denaturalization of Modern Art (1992) -- are masterpieces of intelligence and analysis. They are among the most in-depth, erudite examinations of modern art, made at a time when it did not yet have academic credentials -- and Biederman never made an academic abstract art. He persuasively argued for modern art's epistemological importance, citing not only artists but scientists and philosophers.

Biederman was a wide-ranging intellectual with serious knowledge of many areas. He was both theoretician and practitioner in the grand tradition of such pioneering modernist artist-thinkers as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. He grew somewhat cantankerous as he aged -- he lived almost a century -- but he remained considerate and humane to the end.

It is a travesty of American art history that Golub has his small place in Jonathan Fineberg's textbook Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being while there is not even a mention of Biederman. Did he make the career mistake of not moving to New York, and so of being instantly dismissed as provincial, however cosmopolitan and sophisticated his art was? Is sensitive abstract art less of a strategy of being than shortsighted realism? Or is nationalist -- however inverted the nationalism -- social realism preferable to transnational geometrical abstraction, particularly when one is writing art history for American college students, who prefer excitement to contemplation? History, as Henry Ford said, is bunk, not to say rank injustice predetermined by populist interests and ideological prejudices.

Is the difference between Golub and Biederman a difference between artist types -- different kinds of artistic ambitions -- or is it something more fundamental: a difference in character?

Quotation of the day: "Everything Schnabel does has only one meaning: it's over. The story of American art that seemed so epic, so inexhaustible, from Jackson Pollock in the 1940s to Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark in the 1970s, is over. How can a culture become so creative so suddenly, and then, as suddenly, dry up?"

"Yankee Doodles, Jonathan Jones on the death of American Art," The Guardian, Dec. 8, 2003

GORGON writes occasionally on contemporary culture.