David Bierk has a tender affection for museum art. No contempt for it, no misuse of it, no Marinetti bullshit about museums as "cemeteries." It may have been liberating in 1908 to declare that "to admire an old picture is to pour our sentiment into a funeral urn instead of hurling it forth in violent gushes of action and productiveness," but it is stupid to believe this in 2005. The violent gushes of action have become spent gushers of pretension. One wonders how productive they were in the first place. They increasingly look like esthetic and emotional dead ends. Twentieth-century pictures have become old and laid to rest in museums: have they become funeral urns? Increasingly, they look much more old than the pictures of the many centuries that have preceded them, now that the myth of artistic advance that sustained them has collapsed into the lie it always was. The works of the Old Masters have their freshness sedimented in them; the works of the modern masters wear their vitality on their sleeve, where it can easily be brushed away.
Leaving us with what? A narcissistic shell, the visual remains of self-absorption, a fantasy of self-creation and creation ex nihilo -- out of those dregs of life called found objects, out of those myths of meaning called ideologies. When one looks at the Old Masters one sees something different: a meaning that has become a material truth, a picture that evokes an intensely lived experience of the lifeworld beyond the work of art, even as it seems like an experience that transcends the lifeworld because it has been memorialized and universalized in a work of art. An Old Master picture is a living memory not a flash-in-the-pan moment, with little or no staying power apart from what so-called theory gives it.
David Bierk's pictures are homage to Old Master pictures -- museum art about museum art. They are moral pictures, preserving what nihilists like Marinetti sought to destroy, as though to do so was in and of itself a creative act, the way Rauschenberg's annihilation of a de Kooning drawing is mistakenly regarded as a creative act. Bierk's homages to Old Master pictures -- his giving them refuge in the sanctuary of his picture -- reminds us that all that glitters in avant-garde art is not necessarily gold, and above all that many avant-garde works lack the spirituality that Clement Greenberg foolishly regarded as an after effect of manipulation of the physical medium rather than as something latent in being that creativity struggled to make materially manifest.
David Bierk died a year ago, in his 50s, of cancer, and the exhibition at Nancy Hoffman is a posthumous homage to him, and so is this little essay. Bierk was an artist, an increasingly rare breed these post-artist days, when the boundary between life and art -- the everyday and the sublime, as it were -- have become blurred at the expense of art, as though the sublime has no meaning and place in everyday life, certainly not in everyday modern life, where sublime experiences seem rare and irrelevant.
One picture makes the point of Bierk's art succinctly clear: Requiem for a Plantet, Apollo (1994-2001). To say that Bierk is simply quoting two Old Master works of art -- a painting and a sculpture, the former by way of his own hand, the latter by way of a photograph -- in an ironic postmodern manner is to miss the tension generated by their juxtaposition. The works are different in scale, material and theme, adding to the tension. Is it resolved? It seems not: figure stands against landscape, more particularly a classical god against a romantic landscape, and even more particularly an Apollonian figure against a Dionysian landscape (confirmed by the sublime stasis of the former and the gestural intensity of the latter). Both images are embedded in steel -- a rather somber, gray steel, permanently locking them in place, confirming their permanence, and acknowledging that they are symbols of the eternal opposites that shape both life and art.
The work as a whole is tragic and mournful, as its title indicates, but it is also subliminally joyous: the joy of art has replaced the joy of life. Bierk has in effect turned Old Master works of art that are symbols of the divine in human and nature into symbols of the sacredness of art itself. Their insistent, poignant sacredness -- irreducible spirtual character -- is their common ground, the core of their inner relationship, which is what Bierk's own sacred work symbolizes. He has in effect rebaptized old museum masterpieces -- art that seems to have become obsolete, that doesn't speak to our times (even though it speaks to what is deepest in every human being) -- by immobilizing them in the gray waters of the river Styx. Paradoxically, they seem more alive, beautiful, inevitable, and sublime in death -- Bierk never denies that they are dead, as the funereal character of their appearance indicates -- than they ever did in their own passing times. They must die to be reborn as eternal, more particularly, to be re-presented as art and nothing but art rather than as representations of the lifeworld, that makes them more humanly meaningful -- indeed, emotionally resonant and cognitively convincing -- than they ever were when they were first made.
"Life," Jan. 8-Feb. 2, 2005, the third in a series of four posthumous exhibitions of work by David Bierk, appeared at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, 429 West Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.