15 April 2014

Was It Ever So Simple?

Is an obsession with the past the sign of a morbid disposition? Obsession in the case meaning a constant rehashing of past occurrences and achievements – done for the sake of assuaging an anxious sense of stasis, degeneration, impasse, or reversion in the present. I find myself wondering this in recent months, as the news offers an incessant series of anniversaries – of this or that landmark legislation, historical milestone, technological innovation, tragic event or horrific massacre, etcetera etcetera etcetera. This, admittedly, might simply just another example of the news cycle doing what it does – filling news holes and broadcast time with whatever it can, especially if that whatever is easier to explain than (say) what's going on in Syria or Crimea.

At any rate...some time ago Simon mentioned the matter of retromantic tendencies within the artworld of the moment. I wasn't so convinced at first, but soon conceded that it was a trend, albeit a marginal and trifling one. In the interim, there have been several retro- exhibitions, curatorial events that have aimed – in some form or another – to restage or revisit some paradigm-shifting exhibition of years gone by. One can easily guess the likely candidates in advance. And yet another one is presently in the offing, that being the Jewish Museum's repackaging to their historic "Primary Structures" exhibition – the 1966 show being that one that offered audiences a survey of Minimalist art practices as embodied in the works of Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Anne Truitt, Ronald Bladen, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Daniel Bell, and others. Minimalism had been around for at least 5-6 years by that point, so it wasn't entirely new; but the exhibition marked the first time that the "New Art" tendency gained the notice of the broader public and the media.

Not that this amounted to public acceptance at the time, merely recognition. Minimalist art would remain controversial for years thereafter. Over the intervening half century, its legacy remained has mixed. For instance: In terms of artistic practices and impulses, did Minimalism mark the end of something, or the beginning? Some would answer "yes" to the first, framing in terms as an extremist end-gaming extension of Greenbergian notions of puristic formalism, reductive literalism, and "medium specificity." Others might argue the latter point, asserting that Minimalism constituted a break from the Greenbergian model of modernist art, and was partly responsible for introducing prefabrication and permutational seriality into art-making practices that are still very much with us today.*

The current Jewish Museum reboot affair is titled "Other Primary Structures," is the first of a two-part exhibit, and touts itself as a "sequel" and a "response" to the 1966 original. As such, it aims for historical revisionism – expanding upon its predecessor's Anglo/North American bias by including the work of artists who were supposedly doing comparable things in other places (e.g. Brazil, Croatia) around the same time. As Roberta Smith states in her NYT review, "Other Primary Structures" suffers from a number of weaknesses, not the least of which is the nature of its laissez-faire premise. Personally, I think it's a bit of curatorial overreach to try and shoehorn works by the likes of Brazilian Neo-Concretist artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica into the mix, considering that the artists involved in each respective group were pursuing very different ideas.**  But it looks like we can expect more of this sort of porousness in the second part of the exhibition, which will feature work by then-contemporaneous artists from Latin American, Eastern Europe, Israel, and Africa.

One has to allow for a fair amount of contextual slippage for this premise to work. But it's well-intentioned, I suppose. At the very least, viewers are introduced to a number of previously unknown or neglected artists. Still, by choosing to lump it in under the title of the original exhibition (even with the tacked-on "Other" qualifier), one can't but the belated inductees are still subsumed subjuncts to the Established Narrative. But that's the nature of trying to stick with the favored categorizations of art in the 1960s. It's messy business. Art practices were fragmenting, having already split off in a number of directions within first year of the decade. As Minimalism was first coming into being, so was it's nemesis – the artistic sensibility that some labeled "postminimalism," as embodied in the works of Eve Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Paul Thek, et al. Even some of the chief Minimalists (e.g., Morris, Serra) would schizophrenically vascilate between the two tendencies a few years down the road, as Bataillian ideas of the visceral, the unstable, and the uncanny began to increasingly gain traction. (Which points in the direction of another recently-resurrected exhibit, bringing us back to "When Attitudes Become Form.")

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*  There are other ways of looking at it, as well. For example: Perhaps as a passing resurgence of a Constructivist sensibility, its onotology-of-objecthood possibly intended as a brutely materialist rebuttal to the romanticism and mysticism embodied by "color field" painters like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, et al.?

If anything, the movement helped introduce usher in the phenomenon of the artist and theorist and critic, be it in relation to his own work and that of his immediate peers; with artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Sol LeWit, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson stepping into the critical process and providing the central texts. Granted, at the time there were a handful of new critics – Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Gregory Battock – who proved willing and able to analyze the work, and recognized its significance. But to read their early essays on Minimalist work if to find them floundering, grasping to nail down its key concepts, if not devise an aesthetic vocabulary for discussing the work in the first place. Judd & co. would eventually step in to intervene.

**  Grounds for debate, I'm sure. One could argue for some generalized theoretical overlap; but it's be a tenuous case, at best. Plus I doubt most of the first-gen Minimalists would ever have been so generous in extending the courtesy. They were a narrowly-focused bunch, and could often be arse-gratingly pedantic about the whole enterprise, as well.

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