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Noble or Nibble?

by Charlie Finch
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Watching Barnett Newman muse about his own work in an interview on YouTube, I am fascinated by his inability to justify or explain it. "I got rid of the atmosphere," he says, discussing Onement (1948), his initial foray into zipness or stripeness. "I lived with this painting for eight months." Newman continues, "A painter becomes a kind of choreographer of space" -- and then, bizarrely, "it is like applying eyeliner," as he drags on a cigarette and breathes heavily.

Sitting here in the woods, I needed Newman, long one of my special heroes, to guide me through two horrible shows, James Siena at Pace Gallery and Thornton Willis at Elizabeth Harris, which I decided not to see after snoozing through the "you are there" segments devoted to the shows on the James Kalm Report. James Kalm, aka Loren Munk, is a likeable, dimwitted observer, who has recently emerged as the darling of the most reactionary element in art criticism, James Panero of the New Criterion, who shares the initials of Jed Perl (New Republic) while managing to be even more right-wing and visually clueless about painting, an almost impossible task.

The rock-solid turd that results is a stark reification of two of the worst kinds of painting: rigid abstraction and bad figuration. If anything shall guarantee the ascendancy of video and the death of painting, it is these morons and their fetishization of the awful. I have seen a lot of James Siena shows. I have seen him doodling at MoMA and in one or more manifestations of "Greater New York" at P.S. 1. I have watched his wallpaper unfold by the yard at Pace.

This guy not only puts the form into formalism, he bludgeons every spark of life out of his stillborn creations, to the point that even Barnett Newman, the Grand Objectifier, would strenuously object.

Thornton Willis, an old guy who until recently was noticed for aborting one of the trickiest shapes to Ab Up, the triangle, has, if you believe the dead zone of the Kalm Report, produced some idiotic figure/ground mazes in pastel colors that all look the same. Even James Panero, whose taste in painting is analogous to Mitt Romney's taste in porn (dry, clothed and frigid), could not bring himself to unabashedly praise Willis in the April issue of the New Criterion, in spite of the fact that the Harris Gallery purchased a full page ad in the magazine.

There is a grand tradition of celebrating the very bad in abstraction, because people, even the experts, don't know how to discern the noble from the nibble: Helen Frankenthaler and her stupid stains, Richard Pousette-Dart and his mandalas of crap. Abstraction should be about liberation, the chain-smoking, searching, reductivist dubiation of a Newman. Dick-like puzzles of the Siena and Willis school are simply ugly tombstones, the inspiration of the grave. But, apparently, there will always be morons like Panero, Kalm and Perl who think that they are gazing at the sky.

James Siena, Mar. 25-Apr. 30, 2011, at Pace Gallery, 510 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

Thornton Willis, Mar. 17-Apr. 23, 2011, at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).