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|Art Under Covers
by Suzaan Boettger
|It is a commonplace in the publishing world that as the days get longer the books we read get shorter. In the good old summertime, even art lovers may be excused if they turn to "beach" books -- not only light but lite -- to fill the time between dips in the ocean and strolls on the sand.
Just in time, Artspace Books has published the delicious Stardumb, with art by East Village artist John de Fazio and stories by Las Vegas-based art critic Dave Hickey. This modest, square volume comes with a hard paper cover like a children's book and weighs only ten ounces. The title makes a punning connection between astrology and art-world stardom; its 12 tales of the art city, set in Chelsea and Santa Monica, each putatively illustrate Zodiacal personality traits.
De Fazio's drawings, which have a bright collaged density that combines scientific illustration and psychedelic designs into faux occult imagery, are lite fun. Hickey's framing of art world types as astrological signs is obliquely interpretive but unnecessary -- his sharply observed stories stand on their own. His attitude toward avaricious artists, compromised collectors, eccentric critics, and yes, the rest of us in the art world just making it, is less fashionably ironic than lovingly wry. This is a treasure you'll hate to see end.
Gorky, Varo, Porter
Artists' biographies of a more substantial sort are also good for vacation travel as they frequently have the dramatic arc of fiction, which maintains absorption in the narrative despite disruptions. Among recent biographies of 20th-century artists, one whose life was stranger than fiction was Manoug Vosdanig Adoian. Except that a lot of the biography he promulgated actually was fiction -- such as the name by which he became known as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist: Arshile Gorky.
With her knowledge of Armenian culture and her attention to psychological implications, Nouritza Matossian's Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky offers a passionate narrative, even if it sometimes romanticizes this narcissistically wounded artist who took so long to find his own voice.
Born in western Armenia in 1904, barely escaping the Turkish government's genocidal campaign against the Armenians (his mother didn't, his father had already fled to the U.S.), he and his sister arrived at Ellis Island as grieving teenagers. Gorky was largely self-taught, and when he entered the art scene in New York five years later (1925) he represented himself as a combination of the noble fighter Achilles (Arshile, in Armenian) and a "cousin" of the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky (a word that means "bitter").
Gorky's search for his stylistic and psychological father took him through periods of donning Cezanne's, Picasso's, Miro's and Kandinsky's identities. Eventually, he evoked memories and conflicts in distinctive abstractions of radiant lobes. Soon enough, he had reason again for bitterness: a fire destroyed his studio, cancer required a colostomy bag, his neck was broken and painting arm paralyzed in car accident with dealer Julien Levy, and his wife left him for Roberto Matta Eschauren. This biography has epic sweep.
In contrast, the Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963) discovered her own signature fantasist imagery early on, but like Gorky, the subject matter was fed by an obsessive desire to contain anxieties about intimacy, her own safety and her identity as a woman. The path she took was that of Surrealist syntheses of autobiographical, mythological, and occult elements.
Janet A. Kaplan's Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys infuses art historical analysis with emotional acumen, illustrating herself the importance in a biography of author-subject alignment. This beautifully designed and illustrated paperback brings back into print Kaplan's 1988 cloth edition, the first in English. After emigrating to Mexico in 1941, Varo's travel was internal and her pictures diaristic yet dreamlike. Thank goodness that Kaplan can be our Virgil, guiding us through the enigmatic details of Varo's Gothic-like illuminations and the spirals of her psychic journey toward inner development.
Justin Spring's Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art describes the interpersonal complexities of a painter whose realist images of family life, seen in interiors and landscapes, look so simple -- brilliantly hued and emotionally pallid. Porter's career from the 1940s suffered from late modernism's exclusion of figuration and domesticity from the pantheon of serious art. He did become well-known during his lifetime (1907-1975) as an incisively descriptive critic for Art News and later the Nation.
Spring, a novelist and a critic for Artforum, strongly conveys Porter's engagement with literature and his "investigation of the metaphysical through the sensual medium of art." His deeply researched narrative interweaves fragments of poetry and of letters between Porter and artists -- such as painter Jane Freilicher and poets Frank O'Hara and James Schulyer.
Spring also responds with a clear-eyed mixture of sympathy and skepticism to Schulyer, a younger man, poor, gay, with a tendency to use people and prone to episodes of schizophrenia, who gradually moved into Porter's household of wife and children, was cared for, and became Porter's lover. Porter's wife's devotion encompassed all of it, the perplexed children stood by, and eventually Schulyer moved on. If the paintings' composure compensated for that underlying tumult, Spring doesn't push the art/life relation enough to tell. Even so, this is an absorbing story, not only of a life, but of the mid-century New York art world.
Breaking the cult of impersonality
These scholars' increasing interest in biography corresponds to a return of the repressed. The integration of biography and history into art criticism fell into disfavor 50 years ago with Clement Greenberg's formalist estheticism, and became even more discredited some 30 years ago by Roland Barthes' Death of the Author. Disinterment began in the 1970s with feminist assertions of the importance of not only gender, but by extension personal history and more broadly, an artist's (and thus a critic's) subjectivity.
Nevertheless, biography has taken a while to show up in scholarship, as it can easily slide into sensationalism. The reincorporation of biography was certified earlier this year in the College Art Association's Art Bulletin. By publishing Anna C. Chave's Minimalism and Biography last March, several walls came tumblin' down at once: the august journal had a picture of a 20th-century work on its cover, which was a sculpture, and which was by a woman (Eva Hesse), and which was printed on creamy pink paper (as it never would have been shown in 1969)!
Arguing that the putatively nonreferential cubes can be understood as figuring biographical issues, and that the recognition of some artists resulted from their relations -- occasionally sexual -- with art critics, Chave takes a bold step in breaking what Robert Pincus-Witten has termed the "cult of impersonality" of artists in the 1960s.
Illustrating the ambivalence with which biography has been treated by art historians, Susan Elizabeth Ryan's Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech both includes biography and holds it at arm's length from a psychological interpretation of Indiana's works. Unlike the other bios reviewed here, she applies critical theory, acknowledges the contingencies of poststructuralism and states in the second sentence of the first page that the artist did not always agree with her interpretations. We are thus prominently assured that the writer does not speak for the artist, that this is her own construction.
Or rather, it is her deconstruction and reconstruction of his construction of himself as Indiana, after being born Clark. This sort of intellectual defensiveness indicates that the book originated as a dissertation, in this case on Indiana's blocky LOVE image (the LO over the VE, the O diagonally leaning forward). But it also generates a sophisticated interpretive reflexivity, such as an acknowledgement of the myth-making character of Indiana's works' self-referentiality.
Indiana grew up in that state, attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s on a GI bill, spent time in Europe. When in 1957 he got a studio in Manhattan's very downtown Coenties Slip, he became part of a stimulating group of young artists (Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney, Jack Youngerman). For a time, Kelly and Indiana were lovers, and as the latter's homosexuality "is a subject entirely avoided in his interviews and artist's statements." Ryan effectively outs him and applies that information to Indiana's "commemoration of artists and writers associated with homosexual themes, like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Hart Crane, Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley."
But a central psychological correlation is absent. The "Love" image's askew O, so suggestive of an open mouth, but off-balance, so expressive of a gasp or an "oh," but cleanly contained by its bright, hard-edges, evokes Indiana's experience of having been adopted, his recognition on some level that his presence replaced the couple's deceased child, and the unstable family life Ryan describes in which he was "loved." Despite Ryan's excessive caution about applying her vaunted authorial subjectivity, this boldly designed book with many brilliant illustrations offers much new information about Indiana.
If you insist on hearing it directly from the artist, you can read Fairfield Porter's smart observations collected his Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975, edited and with an introduction by fellow sensualist/realist painter Rackstraw Downes.
A recently published anthology is Writings on Art, Tom Marioni, 1969-1999. This San Francisco-based artist founded the first MOCA there in the late 1960s: the first Museum of Conceptual Art. It was in a cavernous loft on Third Street just off Market when that was the decrepit wrong side of downtown. Now, the glamorous new SFMOMA building is also on Third, just two blocks further into the area renovated into spiffiness.
Marioni's early body art-oriented conceptual art, usually performed solo, had an aspect of California-wackiness, but with undertones of strongly self-reflexive consciousness about art and self. As many California artists then took the stance that "I'm not verbal, I'm an artist," the thoughtful observations in this small volume provide a rare account of art on both coasts (and in eastern Europe) from a Californian's perspective.
Maybe you are ambitious, and want to use the ebbing weeks before Labor Day to learn a few things about cultural history. You are not alone. A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that at the annual awards dinner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the fashionistas were talking about Jacques Barzun's summa of his life's work, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Yrs of Western Cultural Life. Perhaps their busy cultural lives -- better described as from decadence to dawn -- have not allowed them to get very far into it.
The appeal of Barzun's account is that the 92-year old historian's several decades' experience lecturing at Columbia University enables him to subtly interweave a panorama of religious, economic and political situations into the development of art, music and literature. His description of the birth of the persona of the artist-thinker out of the medieval identity of artisan as technician is useful. Pull-quotes in the margins summarize points: Leonardo, with the Mona Lisa the painter of the first secular Madonna, gives a statement apt for Lawrence Weiner, "Painting is a thing of the mind."
But how ironic that these celebrants at the font of adventurous design would be tittering about a book that so explicitly denies any value to innovations in the arts after 1920. Then Barzun's commentary becomes a jeremiad against the "pastiche and parody" that he sees as eating away at the ideals of modernism just after it took root. Jettison this book here and congratulate yourself on becoming considerably more informed by the first 679 pages. (Barzun's argument is related to Peter Bürger's criticism of post-World War II art as a mere "neo" avant-garde, but the latter's Theory of the Avant-Garde is much more analytically sophisticated and satisfying, even as it is also difficult to agree with.)
If this gathering of recent books pertaining to art seems as loose as a house of summer shares in the Hamptons, it is because of burgeoning publication lists in the visual arts. You may have heard that in NYC the numbers attending museums exceed those going to sports arenas. And that in the U.S. a new museum of one kind or another opens at the rate of a least one a day.
Well it seems that this is sparking a broad interest in visual culture, and in pictures and words about all the gorgeous and strange things that we'd like to look at again and know more about. Publishers Weekly recently reported that the third annual NYC Art Book Fair in mid-June had a 25 percent overall increase in attendance. PW writer (and Artnet Magazine contributor) Calvin Reid noted, "There were 61 booths taken by 49 separate exhibitors, many of whom were distributors representing scores of publishers and hundreds of titles."
Artnet bookstore director Charles Gute was there, searching for special new publications and recently commented, "It amazes me how the art publishers continue to outdo themselves season after season." He described the show as having an unprecedented wealth of new art titles.
They'd rather do it themselves. It's not only the number of books about art that is up, but the number of publishers bringing them out. This fall, the publications division of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will inaugurate its own trade publishing list under the imprint "MFA Publications." A graduate school product? No, the museum must be assuming that the oh so unique name "Museum of Fine Arts" will spring to mind when seeing those initials rather than the more common reference to the degree that most visual artists and creative writers nowadays get, a Master of Fine Arts.
The MFA Boston has published books since 1877, but used museums' customary procedure of putting together the designed book and joining with a major commercial publisher (often it is Abrams) to have it printed, distributed and publicized. MFA publisher Mark Polizzotti projects that within a couple of years his team will put out 25 titles annually, not necessarily tied to museum exhibitions or collections. The first, related to an upcoming show, will be Darcy Kuronen's Dangerous Curves: The Art of the Guitar.
My current Artnet horoscope -- which I will testify with all the authority my Ph.D. conveys is often remarkably right-on -- states that "You are currently more confident and regenerative than for many a moon." Yo! Thus, one way I am reinventing myself is as your reporter on art books. Astrologist Leigh Oswald goes on to note, "The fates are with you and giving power to your elbow." If I can just work that force up to the brain and down to the fingers we'll cover a lot of art "Between the Covers."
You can help out by writing me at Artnet and letting me know which books on art you have enjoyed lately, what you have thrown aside as boring or incomprehensible, and what sort of writing on art you would like to read about here. In the next few months I will address thematic roundups and news.
And I'm going to report to you what happens to a manuscript between being turned in to the publisher and emerging as a book, from the perspective of the author -- me. My own 148,000-word, 112-illustration art history text just lifted out of my hands after years of labor, to nest at the University of California Press for a while. As this is my first book, I'm as curious as anyone as to how a book evolves out of this process. I'll be back in a month.
SUZAAN BOETTGER can be reached by email at .