27 March 2013

Vexing Symmetries, Part One

I: The Artist in Her Studio

This first photo of the artist in her studio is the most widely known and circulated. That, mostly owing to the fact that it was used as the cover image on an album by a notable indie-rock outfit not too many years ago, an album that subsequently wound up on a number of music critics' year-end lists. Perhaps a few people who bought the album already knew the image, knew what – or who – it depicted, were familiar with its original context. That context being that it’s a picture of the American artist Lee Bontecou working in her studio loft in lower Manhattan, as taken by photographer Ugo Mulas in 1963. The artist's back is to the camera, and she stands in almost total silhouette. One can discern the welder’s mask tipped back on her head, and – in the arm that hangs slack by her side – a blowtorch, both of which obviously were instrumental in making the large, strange, surreally totemic constructions we see propped up along the walls of her workspace.

The image has an almost iconic quality about it; which is appropriate, since it captured a leading American artist at the height of her career. Which is also ironic, seeing how – not too many years later – the same artist would slip from the public eye, and eventually, mostly (for a couple of decades, at least) from public memory, as well.

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II: A Disappearance

What had happened to Lee Bontecou? That was the question for many years (nay, decades) among some of the art-minded folk who knew or remembered anything about her work. If you lived someplace that a museum that housed one of her works, she was never far from memory – mainly because the work, once seen, had a tendency to permanently lodge itself in a person's memory. Occasionally some art magazine or publication might reproduce a photo of one of her pieces, usually giving it and the artist a passing acknowledgement in the course of some broader context. And all the works attributed to Bontecou dated from a specific period – a narrow window that fell in the first half of the 1960s. Beyond that, the trail seemed to go dead. Such remarkably unique and uncanny work, the opinion had it, whatever because of the artist?

The rumor had it that she'd walked away from the art world for some reason or another – had deliberately "dropped out," or merely drifted off. Not much of anyone seemed to know the story as to why. This was the case throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. This finally changed in the years leading up to the approach of the new millennium, mainly sparked – with a great deal of help from feminist art-history scholars – by a renewed interest in Bontecou's work.

But in that intervening stretch of some two decades or more, Bontecou remained a mystery. For instance: In the mid 1990s, in the course of my graduate studies, I took a course under the art critic Jerry Saltz, one part of which involved a trip to New York and extensive walking tour of the various gallery districts and museums as they were trotting out their wares for the autumn opening season. At one point we wound up at the Leo Castelli gallery. Along one wall of the place, there was a large photomontage of vintage black-and-white images, displaying what was effectively Leo Castelli's "greatest hits" – a panorama of many of the important, zeitgeist-defining artists that Castelli had represented over the years. The thing prompted a quick round of Name That Artist as we surveyed the wall-length spread.

"It's like a Who's Who of all the heavy hitters of an era," Jerry said, pointing at portraits that splayed the length of the wall. "There's Johns. And Rauschenberg. Frank Stella. And there's Warhol, of course. And I'm not sure who this guy is...," pointing toward one figure.
"James Rosenquist," I offered.
Several more names are ticked off the list. "And who's this?" Out of the array of nearly twenty artists, he was pointing to a image that was peripherally tucked in among the lot, showing a sole female member in the display.
"Lee Bontecou," one of the other students answered.
"As in: Whatever happened to?" Jerry said, his eyebrows raising excitedly. "One of the most inexplicable vanishing acts of the modern American art scene."

As it turned out, she wasn’t that far away. Up until five years prior to discussion, she'd been teaching at nearby Brooklyn College; as she had been for the previous two decades.

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III. What Time is Now? (Some Notes on a Particular Context)

At this point, it's probably worth noting the importance of Leo Castelli in this story; if not in the broader story of American art at the time in question. If only because he was the leading art-gallerist of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In those years, the roster of artists he corralled and represented could be described – without fear of hyperbole or contradiction – as an "era-defining" all-star lineup, the extent of which was unparalleled.

Early on, he'd taken in Rauschenberg, Johns, and Cy Twombly. From the array of young artists working in the emergent category of Pop art, he'd landed Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, and eventually the late-comer Warhol. Into the 1960s, Castelli's cortege would expand to include the pioneering minimalists Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin and Richard Serra; as well as several prominent "post-minimalist" artists such as Eva Hesse, Keith Sonnier, and Bruce Nauman. Such is the stuff from which museum permanent collections would be made.

It was also the sort of collection that represented a particular moment in art history, especially due to its eclecticism – several developments, all of them more of less concurrent, none of them particularly acquiring (or, at the very least, competing for) aesthetic dominance. Over the preceding decades, painting – particularly that of the abstraction variety, what held some debt to Cubism – had been considered the most important artistic endeavor of the age. But with the "triumph of American art" as epitomized by the efforts of Pollack, DeKooning, and their Abstract Expressionist peers, that sequence had effectively reached the end of its arc – had been taken as far it could go, was increasingly perceived as "exhausted."

Not that painting was abandoned overnight; far from it. The supremacy of painting persisted in a strain of Greenbergian formalism, playing out into the 1960s in the domain "color field" painting and "post-painterly" abstraction. But fewer and fewer artists felt that there was much (if anything) at stake in area of activity – in what was shaping up to be an aesthetic endgame, dwindling under the orthodoxy of endlessly self-refining criteria. And whereas the issue of "what to paint" became something of a conundrum among those artists who chose to stick with the medium, for as many artists of the postwar years it was a matter of whether to bother with the categorical imperatives of painting (or sculpture, or any specific traditional medium for that matter) at all.1  At which point things scattered off in a number of directions – into a number of mutant, "impure" directions, with no single -ism having the final word (save for a nascent wave of aesthetic pluralism). "Movements no longer work," the minimalist sculptor and arch-theorist Donald Judd wrote in his "Primary Objects" essay of 1965. "Linear history has unraveled somewhat."

Such was the state of things when Leo Castelli opened his New York gallery in 1957. He'd started off collecting and exhibiting the work of Modernist masters and artists of the New York School – Kandinsky, Gorky, Pollock, DeKooning and the like. To a large degree, he still subscribed to the Modernist paradigm, believed in the positivist teleology of artistic evolution à la MOMA director (and Castelli mentor) Alfred H. Barr's famous flow chart (c. 1935) of 20th-century art movements – an intricate diagram of influences and causal linkages. But three decades later, speaking of the post-modern art scene of the late 1980s, he would confess:
"I never thought it would come to this. I've always believed in development, one movement following another, the Cubists on the heels of the Fauves, Minimalism after Pop, and so forth. But everything today is very much in flux. There's so much happening now that it's difficult to sort it all out."
One could argue that this perception of evolutionary succession was never so secure or tidily sequential in the first place; more a product of prioritized perception, categorization, and a willful "aspect blindness."2  More interesting (and ironic) here is Castelli, in looking back what all had transpired in the art world since the advent of his career, wasn’t able to fully comprehend how much he had actively abetted its unraveling and fragmentation.

But part of Leo Castelli's eminent career meant drastically furthering the careers of the artists he exhibited. He assertively and savvily promoted their work, brokered the sale of same to important collectors and institutions, and even paid them a generous stipend. And one of those artists was Lee Bontecou, whom Castelli approached (thanks to the urging of his fellow gallerist Ivan Karp) in 1960, giving her a solo exhibition in November of that same year. It was only her second such show, but it was the one that landed her squarely and prominently in the public spotlight.

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IV. When was Then? (Some Sidenotes on that Same Context)

An inventory of what all what going on during that brief transitional span of time that happened include the year of 1960 would be too much to catalog here. Some highlights might include: The waning of lyrical abstraction in the U.S. and elsewhere; taschisme and art informel their related and competing postwar European manifestations subsiding with other things shouldering into the breach. A number of artiste provocateurs who had been active in France and thereabouts coming together under the short-lived umbrella of Nouveau réalisme. The first stirrings of Viennese Actionism. The work of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and other emerging out of the rubble of postwar Italy. And the emergence of Neo-Concretism in Brazil. Plus numerous other things, most of which couldn't be attributed (even though manifestos were still quite fashionable) to any -ism or over-arching aesthetic. And then of course there was that quickly coalescing international network of artists operating under the banner of Fluxus; whose chosen moniker and loose, often chaotic operations best epitomized the artistic character of the times.

Someone might have even declared painting "dead" thenabouts, but maybe not. If not, then the verdict would be delivered eventually, and then they'd do so repeatedly in the years that followed. Whatever the case, it may have already been neither here nor there in 1960, something a bit superfluous and not worth worrying about. Not even worth getting all reactively anti- about; since anything can become a point of departure – the bedrock for mutation, syncretic hybridities or whathaveyou. Cultural activity (if not culture in general) sometimes operates that way When certain areas of feverish concentration and activity lapse, possibilities in other areas become fertile ground for exploration. When one of those same demoted zones of activity become a critical "ghetto," then all stakes are off the table; all supposed "rules" and strictures are rendered arbitrary, and everything previously considered a given becomes moot. For some, this can be a distressing situation, at least if an artist is the sort that needs the guidance of signposts for required for "correct" navigation. For others, it presents a liberatory situation. The way forward, as it were, doesn't necessarily mean taking steps down the previously proscribed path.3

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1.  In some instances, this sense of a break (or at least and attitudinal disconnection)had as much to do with an artistic ethos as it did aesthetics. For one, there was the nature of high-Modernist formalism, which had grown increasingly hermetic as the years wore on. But there was also the romantic subjectivism and creative agon that peaked with Abstract Expressionism. The latter in particular failed to appeal to many younger American artists, who in some cases considered such stuff quaintly ill-suited to their own time, if not something of an existential indulgence or luxury.

2.  Case in point: The movements Castelli offhandedly cited in his remark have – in terms of shared practices or theory – have very little in common (if not altogether opposing aims). The only rationale for pairing them as examples in this instance is by dent of one having historically followed the other.

3.  Or so it looks in hindsight. Who knows – a lot of the participants probably had all sorts of heated arguments about it all, about what mattered and why, where it all could (or should) lead. You often sense it in what was written by some of the more notable art critics of the time – the awkward reliance on established notions, the ill-fitting comparisons made and metaphors deployed, the lapses in judgement and failures to recognize what would later seem obvious, the sometimes fidgety grasping (especially among the younger, next-gen critics) toward defining whatever criteria lurked at the heart of it all, to devise the taxonomy or nomenclature of what was emerging or might follow in its wake. Makes for interesting – if not consistently clumsy reading – most times.

The most telling example of this, see Lucy Lippard's first collection of republished criticism, Changing: Essays in Art Criticism. The footnotes on a number of essays being apologias and after-the-fact clarifications or revisions for what she'd been trying to describe and define initially. Remarkable seeing how (a) the collection saw print in 1971, scarcely five years after much its contents were first published, and (b) Lippard was perhaps the sharpest and insightful critics on the scene at the time.

{ End of Part One }

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