17.2.13

Neo-Expressionism and the two sides of history

Sigmar Polke, Circus Figures, 2005, mixed media on fabric, 300 x 500 cm. 
Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, Cologne.

In a recent review of A.R. Penck's two shows on view in New York, Roberta Smith ended with a reflection on the instability of history, one's sense of what is "relevant":

At this point, Mr. Penck and the Neo-Expressionists, German and otherwise, seem to be mostly out of fashion. But certain artists and styles are inevitably left out of the prevailing vision of the past or the present. This happens for whatever reason — shortness of attention span, lack of tolerance or narrowness of taste. But history is always in flux. Each rewriting, like each writing, will be reworked by subsequent generations.

That she would speak about the intolerance and narrowness of taste of the king-makers of relevance is beguiling.  It stands in contrast to a piece I recently read from the February 2013 issue of ArtForum where Mira Schor assesses the legacy of Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer.  That she would lump the two men together is already a significant indication of her a priori views, but she spells it out in even more black and white terms:
 To varying degrees both critics had often balked at changes in art after traditional art history and high modernism lost primacy to more contingent, political, and interdisciplinary art movements. But they find themselves on the “wrong” side largely because of their responses to the major transformations of art and culture in the 1980s, particularly the shift in aesthetic values from visuality, process, and form to identity, social history, and the primacy of language.
I wonder exactly which "history" she speaks of and what examples of "wrong" she is referring to in particular apart from her grand gestural sweep of "identity, social history, and the primacy of language."  I have suspicions that in the name of identity, social history and language, Schor is speaking of a very specific way of writing, inquiring and a very specific history, a categorical vision.

In the 1980's the artists that Robert Hughes happened to find less than gratifying were in a large part the very exact Neo-Expressionists that Roberta Smith mentions to have been "forgotten" currently.  Writing about the Venice Biennale of 1984, Hughes writes, "The star of the German pavilion is A.R. Penck, whose hamfisted graphorrhea, expressed in mock-primitive stick figures, is unrelieved by any qualities of design."  In the case of A.R. Penck, would Hughes be on the right or wrong side of history?  Right because he wrote so negatively about a painter that would be written about in 2013 as "unfashionable" or wrong because his assessment is excessive?

* * *

Instead of arguing about the merits of Robert Hughes as an art critic of the art of his time, I would like to just make a comparison of what he wrote about some artists in the 1980s, and compare that to how different art critics have written about these same artist within the past 5 years.

On Sigmar Polke, Hughes wrote in mitigated tones in the December 9, 1991 edition of TIME: "In such works [he speaks of Polke's attempts at painting the sublime in works titled "The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible, 1988"] Polke is vapid and pretentiously big.  But as a stirrer and subverter of ready-made images, nobody alive can rival him."

In Polke's obituary in the NYTimes published in June 2010, Roberta Smith wrote:
Sigmar Polke an artist of infinite, often ravishing pictorial jest, whose sarcastic and vibrant layering of found images and maverick painting processes left an indelible mark on the last four decades of contemporary painting. . .

Roberta Smith goes on to speak of the importance of Polke's work:
But his main achievement was to be an early and astute adopter of American Pop Art, belying its crisp, consumerist optimism with tawdry materials that added social bite, and with random splashes of paint that implied disorder and the unconscious. 

This assessment does not fall far from what Hughes wrote nearly 20 years prior: "For Polke's early paintings, from the late '60s and the '70s, are clearly a response--though an angular, ironic one--to American Pop. . . . His skepticism, however, was all his own."

On Jasper Johns, the artist who has straddled the decades on either side of 1980's Neo-Expressionism, perhaps its antithesis,  Hughes had a growing skepticism over time.  In 1988, while again reviewing the Venice Biennale, he wrote: "Sometimes one is excluded; it is like eavesdropping on a man who, half asleep at 4 in the morning, combines and recombines the obsessive contents of his semiconscious mind, muttering and sometimes cursing.  But this is the play of a great artist."  (TIME, July 25, 1988).   By 1996, his frustration with Johns grew and in an article he entitled "Behind the Sacred Aura," Hughes would write:

Perhaps it is true that, as his admirers believe, a sublimely arcane and complex intentionality lies behind the fragmented and mingily internalized imagery of late Johns [paintings painted after the late 1980s], tying all its scattered hints together.  But one does not have to be altogether a philistine to doubt it.
Ken Johnson, writing in the NY Times, on Jasper Johns, in 2009:

Mr. Johns’s later work lacks the sense of psychological compression that animates his early paintings and sculptures. Drawings, paintings and prints based on the theme of the four seasons from the mid-80s are like scrapbooks or bulletin boards where souvenirs of his long career have accumulated in the form of miniature versions of the flag, the hatchwork pattern, the handprint that puns on the hand of a clock and other images from his repertory of signs and symbols. The painter’s own shadow, cast on a green wall, adds an oblique autobiographical dimension; it is a blank, ghostly form, as though he were an enigma to himself.

On Eric Fischl, Robert Hughes also wrote in mitigated tones in the May 30, 1988 issue of TIME:
"At such moments [a portrait that Fischl did called "Girl with Doll"] you realize that, whatever awkwardness his work still harbors, you cannot wait to see what he is up to."  For many years, I have wondered whether this mitigated but positive review did not in part help make Fischl's career--having been given the "OK" from the "Man" himself.  

Recently, in his review of Katherine Bradford's paintings at the Edward Thorp Gallery, John Yau wrote the following in Hyperallergic:
Back in the 1980s, Fischl was a celebrated member of the Neo-Expressionist movement. Fast forward thirty years, and he’s become an insignificant period artist content to make extraneous paintings, while other painters who also were beginning to exhibit in the heated transition of the late 1970s and early 80s have slowly but steadily gained a depth to their work. 
On Fischl, Hughes was silent after that article in 1988.  If he continued to follow Fischl's career, Hughes did not develop his thoughts any further on the artist.  I for one am in complete agreement with John Yau's assessment, and one could even use Hughes' words to speak of the Fischl career in general: "vapid and pretentiously big." 

To requote Roberta Smith: "But history is always in flux. Each rewriting, like each writing, will be reworked by subsequent generations."

For a less polemical and more "just" evaluation of Robert Hughes, Adam Gopnik's Post-script in the New Yorker is more relevant than Ms. Schor's rant.


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