In 1969, I was put in charge of packing and carting a bunch of student paintings for a show of high-school artists at the Rhode Island School of Design. So preoccupied was I with the safe shipment of my friends' masterpieces that I forgot to bring my own paintings, knockoffs of the two big art stars at the time, Larry Poons and Jules Olitski. What to do?
When we arrived at RISD, I stole into a locker room and appropriated a footlocker and some athletic equipment, arranging it in the exhibition space as an installation entitled "JOCK." Mercilessly ridiculed by my confreres, little did I know that my foresight would be vindicated again and again 25 years hence, even at this year's Venice Biennale, by artists making a room-sized mess.
The current vogue for installation seems to have begun around 1994 with the splash made by Jessica Stockholder, whom an old artist girlfriend of mine used to call "Jessica Potholder." From the late Jason Rhoades through a thousand names that are currently slipping my mind, filling a room full of disorganized objects is now as valid a statement as silk-screening Marilyn was for Warhol long ago.
The other day I was sitting in my attorney's office and spied a small watercolor of a laughing chimpanzee above his desk. "Hey!" I ejaculated, "That's a Walter Robinson!"
"Look closer at the title," advised counsel. It read, "ALIMONY." Just so. These small moments of mildly enlightened distillation are what art has always been about for me. We think of the Fluxus movement as somehow anarchic and reckless, but someone like Robert Watts was a master of esthetic discipline. Even a complex installation, such as Carolee Schneemann's Mortal Coils, was carefully constructed from building blocks of simplicity. The world of Fluxus, of John Cage, even of Warhol was the world of the bomb, the Cold War, the gray flannel suit, the rising tide of conformity: a screwy, confusing place to which artists responded with focus and discipline.
Lamonte Young, for example, rediscovered modality in music, the ability to plunge deeper into slight changes in the same key, for purposes of relaxation and reflection. What money and society have done to the praxis of art is to remove this element of distillation from creation. The great roundelay of names, new materials, price points and agitprop is a big nothing to this corner. But, I guess you knew that already.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).