05 July 2011

Apocalyptic Wallpaper and the Conviction of Doubt

Artist Amy Sillman in the summer edition of Artforum, dismissing the tiresome, reductivist "just a buncha guys painting with their dicks" verdict on Abstract Expressionism...

"Meanwhile, AbEx's legacy presents us with a tangle of still more gender clichés, a strange terrain inhabited by fake-dude-women like Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, wielding their paint sticks like cowboys; and Pollock and de Kooning operating as phallic she-males, working from their innermost intuitive feelings, a 'feminization' that introduces another twist in this essentialist logic.

I thought we were past simple butch and femme role-playing by now. ...But with AbEx, it's always the same old, same old. This kind of simplification wipes away the possibility of looking at all the really interesting vagaries and conflicts within AbEx, ...I'm still gung ho about looking at their work and finding in it tenderness, tragedy, contingency, and inverted color schemes; I'm still inspired by the rhetorical position of speaking from the gut, Walt Whitman style, by the AbExers' work with reimagined relations between the parts and between forces, Gertrude Stein style, but in an anti-Platonic improvisational, real-time mode of production."

Sillman begins with T.J. Clark's 1994 essay "In Defense of Abstract Expressionism," using its championing of an aesthetics of "vulgarity" (re, "tenderness, tragedy, contingency," etc.) to delve into Susan Sontag's celebration of the same in "Notes on Camp" -- especially the latter's postulate that, "In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails."

It's an interesting and enjoyable read, but not without its occasion problems. For instance, shortly after stating the above, Sillman makes reaches her analogy about disco, attributing the popular backlash against disco as chiefly the product of "punk" and of racism and homophobia. Which in terms of circumnavigating clichéd polemics, reminded me of watching a skater gracefully avoid an open manhole cover, only to see them immediately spin around and smack face-first into a lamppost. Still, it's a good essay, if not one of the stronger of the batch presented for the issue's theme -- reframing and revising the recent (American) critical assessment of what the post-war "New York School" was all about.

Favorite quote in the Sillman piece: "Poor old jazz, it’s going through the same thing, but AbEx seems to have suffered a fate worse than jazz: jazz with money."

Now if someone would finally correct and retire that imbecilic meme about how the whole thing was just some propaganda front for C.I.A. Cold-War ops, we'd finally be getting somewhere.

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