New York City September 22nd, 2010
Dear Unidentified To DKS List Recipients,
The not-to be-missed greatest shows ever in the history (and I only slightly exaggerate) "Paul Kasmin Gallery and Vincent Fremont (of the Warhol Foundation?) are pleased to announce a new exhibition of paintings by Deborah Kass, "more feel-good paintings for bad times" at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street, 6-8. It is a public opening in everyone's invited, I misspoke, or misunderstood, or something? There'll be a catalogue, featuring an essay by Robert Storr, not too shabby. I love him.
Pictures are available. If you go to the DKS List website at dks.thing.net you will see at the top of the page the invitation. Click on it and you will go to a page called "Deborah Kass "After Louise Bourgeois" which is a Bruce Nauman-esque tribute to America's greatest sculptor, who recently passed. In the upper left of that page you will see seven small links with titles of some of the paintings in the show.
The Gallery Invitation Just Arrived: "Expanding the ideas of her exhibition in the fall of 2007, Kass continues to mine the fields of post war painting, language, and music to explore the intersection of politics, popular culture, art history, and the self. Kass’s new paintings, while more circumspect, still sing. But the songs are of a more ambivalent nature, reflecting her reaction to the uncertain state of current affairs. Her vibrant texts can be read as an emotional barometer of our times.
The American Songbook, Stephen Sondheim and Laura Nyro take star turns in the paintings, as do Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Ed Ruscha in tribute to their impact on our collective psyches. Embodying these influences, her new neon sculpture, titled “After Louise Bourgeois,” reworks Bourgeois’s highly charged quote, stating “A woman has no place in the art world unless she proves over and over again she won’t be eliminated” in the bright lights employed by Bruce Nauman and Broadway.
In addition to the gallery exhibition, Kass’s paintings will be presented in “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism" at The Jewish Museum in fall 2010, “Hide/ Seek: Desire Difference and the Invention of the Modern American Portrait,” at The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, Fall 2010, “The Deconstructive Impulse” at the Neuberger Museum, January 2011, and “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, Spring 2011.
A General Disclaimer.
Despite these accolades it is still my humble opinion that Deborah Kass, as popular and influential as she is, is nevertheless still one of the most undervalued artists in the world. Obviously I'm a fan.
I am not an art critic or even an art historian, even though I have interests in both. Mostly my interest in art is strictly from the point of view of being an artist, and so when I write about Ideas, Trends and Key Individuals Shows, Galleries and History, I feel I am in a collaboration with all of those things. It's sort of a one-sided collaboration, because I never let people read what I'm going to send out with the list beforehand, because that's an invitation to editing and rewriting the material, and the unhappy fact is that I don't consider writing that easy to want to do it over. In fact I find it damn difficult, (I can't understand how critics and art historians by Jerry and Roberta, who I idolize, crank it out by the pound?) So I feel it's always necessary to begin with a blanket apology for any errors, omissions, mistakes or mischaracterizations of people's words, history, politics, quotations or People's personal or private's subjectivities I write about. All opinions are strictly my own and definitely should not be considered representative of the opinions of any individuals mentioned. I'm extremely confident when I am expressing my own opinions, prejudices and ideas, or when I am drawing freely upon the work of someone like Simon Critchley, who I quote freely, because I feel he expresses my ideas better than I do. (That, in addition, to being my biggest influence currently.) I'm planning to use a lot of quotes of his and take my time bringing everything full circle. because in addition to talking about Ms. Kass, I plan on introducing my new personal philosophy, the global art manifesto, and political agenda to save the world, that I have tentatively titled as being: “Synthetic Speculative Surrealistic Anarchistic Otherism," or SSSAO or "Otherism" for short.
These essays are going to be an ongoing weekly project, and I plan to add more maternal about Deborah Kass in the weeks going forward, because this year I want to write about only a few artists whom I think of as values artists. Individuals whose work I feel will be an interesting commentary on our present times 500 years hence.
For those you who don't know Professor Simon Critchley, he is a New York-based, British born Philosopher, who is the philosophy chair at The New School For Social Research. Who is a fan of art, and a popular speaker at art fairs, who has in the past discussed some of the contemporary contradictions in the relationship of art to theory. I am going to mix some his remarks, with my remarks, and maybe with some remarks by Deborah Kass. Here is some of that, little of his ‘terroristic’ model of theory, (in which he real reassures artists they should stress too much about it) as he explains how perhaps that art and theory have not become divorced. We might even say that in some cases they have merged, or perhaps both become attached to a third term, perhaps art and theory have adopted a form of triolism, a ménage a trois?
Negotiating art and theory through a third term is extremely relevant to Deborah Kass's work. whether it's politics, feminism, the Jewish intellectual tradition, Broadway theater in musicals, our many other things, everything has something to do with her relationship with the intellectual Jewish life of New York City.
Simon Critchley: I want to begin with some more methodological remarks about how I see the relation between art and theory at the present moment and the way out of a dilemma that might allow us to work in another way, collectively we might say.
The ‘Terroristic’ Model Of Theory
Let me begin this way: I think a certain top-down model or ‘theory as legitimation of the artist’ model of the relation between theory and practice has grown old and I think that’s a good thing. Without wanting to insult anyone in particular, but wanting to give a practical example, I saw this in action in places like Goldsmiths College in London in the 1990s, where students on the famous BFA and MFA Program, with more celebrated artists that it is decent to list in mixed company, were cowed into submission and driven in some cases to distraction and quasi-nervous breakdowns where they lost all confidence in their artistic practice through a certain - what I would call - ‘terroristic’ model of theory. They were simply made to feel stupid by their inability to master ‘Theory’, capital T, by which was meant a stack of texts, usually translated from French, with authors often beginning with D, sometimes with F or B, and they were usually terrified of writing the papers they were meant to write because they had little experience doing it. The worst of it, to my mind, and I don’t want to sound arrogant, was that the people who were teaching them theory weren’t that good. People like me used to go in to Goldsmiths or wherever and be expected to explain Lacan or Deleuze at a pretty high level to teachers that really didn’t have much of a clue and in front of students who were simply nonplussed and intimidated by the whole thing. I didn’t enjoy the experience much and neither did they. It seemed pretty pointless at the time and still does.
I’ve always been interested in people that do something that I don’t do and that I can’t do. I’m interested in heart surgeons, cartographers and tap dancers, but I am also interested in artists, particularly in those who are anxious about the word ‘artist’. The issue here is with different modes of articulation, or different modes of thinking. My conviction is that art thinks, just as film thinks and music thinks. Philosophy as a largely conceptual enterprise or meta-practise is thinking about thinking. The question is trying to find a way (not a method, but a way, there is certainly no such thing as a method) of approaching how and what art thinks in its own medium in a way that doesn’t drown art in theory.
Let me expand this point a little. To try and understand or read whatever it is that we call art from the standpoint of some theory is invariably to miss the phenomenon. It is to reduce a visual, spatial (as visual art - the title of this festival - is a sort of anachronism) or medial language to a theoretical metalanguage. It is usually to engage in some sort of cod-philosophy with a lot of useless jargon that is meant to intimidate the uninitiated (and many theoretical discussions of art are simply sadistically intended to do exactly that: to intimidate, to befuddle, to cow, to obscure). To put this in Stevensian terms, this is to reduce art to ideas about the thing, but not the thing itself. What interests me, what always interests me, is the thing itself in its truth (I mean truth as creation, as innovation, not logical or empirical truth – this is truth as troth, as a kind of fidelity) and how, say, the specificity of a thing – an installation, a performance, or whatever – might be approached in its own terms and not translated into the blah blah blah of some theory. By the truth of an artistic thing, I do not obviously mean propositional or empirical truth, but truth as creation, the creation of a singularity whose reach, appeal or revealing power extends beyond itself. This is what I will call in a while ‘anarchic creation’.
If a work of art is the illustration of a theory, or the example of a theory then it is either bad art or, more usually, bad theory. We could get into the whole question of exemplarity in art’s relation to theory if we liked, which has haunted philosophy from Hegel’s obsession with Sophocles to Merleau-Ponty’s obsession with Cezanne and Badiou’s obsession with Beckett and so on. Philosophers love their examples. So, in place of a top-down philosofugal model of the relation of art to theory, I’d like to suggest a artopetal model where theory finds some affluence, some contact with the thing and thing finds some contact with the theory which is being used to elucidate it.
Broadly, I see the relation between art and theory as dialectical: art needs a theory that needs art. I don’t see art as standing alone or as being for its own sake. The act of elucidation, of reflection, of conceptualization, is essential. All art is conceptual, we might say. But art is not simply conceptual and the concept should not exhaust the percept, we might say. It shows the concept’s need for a moment of sensuality or, better, spatiality, which stands apart from the concept. Art needs a theory that needs art. It’s a two way street with all the traffic in the middle.
Maybe artists are less entranced with theory or with a certain kind of top-down theory than they were a generation ago, you know in the distant days when no exhibition catalogue was complete without a quotation from Derrida. But, of course, we should never underestimate the vanity of artists or their desperate need for legitimation from philosophers and theorists. But, of course, I am vain too and also a prostitute and will happily legitimate artists in exchange for the appropriate amount of flattery, money or both. The less said about that the better. After all, I’m here aren’t I?
But let me look at things from another perspective. From this perspective, we might say that art and theory have not become divorced. We might even say that in some cases they have merged, or perhaps both become attached to a third term, perhaps art and theory have adopted a form of triolism, a ménage a trois, as we say in Brooklyn, where art and theory might be said to get together collectively around a third term. We have to learn to count to three, then. Maybe even four and five.
One Third Term - The Political is
An obvious third term here, that I’d like to discuss, is politics, not in the sense of governmental politics, but in the sense of Unipolar Moment and The Obama Era:, where so much art is concerned with the problem of community, of being-in-common and in particular with certain utopian experiments in community that belong to the memory and in some cases the present of radical politics. It is extremely interesting to note the way in which a concern with experiments in community lives on in the institutionally sanctioned spaces of the contemporary art world, where forms of what Hans-Ulrich Obrist calls ‘collaborational promiscuity’ are responses to the question: how to give a community of artists a social structure? And by implication: how to give any community a social structure?
Of course, the problem with such experiments in collectivity is twofold and perhaps obvious: on the one hand, they are only enabled and legitimated through the cultural institutions of the art world and thus utterly enmeshed in the circuits of commodification and spectacle that they seek to subvert; and, on the other hand, the dominant mode for approaching an experience of the communal is through the strategy of reenactment. One doesn’t engage in a bank heist, one reenacts Patty Hearst’s adventures with the Symbionese Liberation Army in a warehouse in Brooklyn, or whatever. Situationist détournement is replayed as obsessively planned reenactment. Fascinating as I find such experiments and the work of the artists involved, one suspects what we might call a ‘mannerist Situationism’, where the old problem of recuperation does not even apply because such art is completely co-opted by the socio-economic system which provides its life-blood.
I like the phrase, ‘mannerist situationism’, you know mannerist in the way Caravaggio stands to Raphael, exaggerated and bloody, but ultimately decadent, compromised and slightly nihilistic; but in many ways, much more attractive.
A Fruitful Exchange Between Art And Philosophy Around A Third Term
Despite these slightly obvious criticisms, I think there is something to the idea of the relationship between art and theory becoming orientated around a third term. Despite the whole business of art fairs, and I’ve been to too many of them of late because, as I said, I’m a cheap intellectual whore, despite that and despite the art market and the commodification of art, I think that the artworld has become a key space in culture for the thinking through of the nature, the possibility, the limitations and, most importantly, the memory of resistance.
So, in my humble view, the hugely compromised space of the artworld, at least in certain localities, is much more interesting than what is taking place in universities, maybe because it is so compromised. What I’ve always liked about the artworld is the nakedness of its mediation by capital. Yet, because of this nakedness, perhaps there is always the possibility for the aesthetic articulation of some outside of the logic of capital, close to Hakim Bey’s delightful idea of the TAZ, a domain of what Liam calls, and it’s an interesting word, semi-autonomy, listen to that: semi-autonomy. Maybe we could come back to that. This outside is always mediated by an inside, compromised by it, recuperated by it, but resistance should always persist with its logic, and persist with its ever-compromised creation of enclaves, of pirate utopias, or whatever. The artist is a pirate, both at a willed distance from the law and wholly parasitic and dependent on it. A doomed character, no doubt.
Of course, to stay with the idea of reenactment, maybe the meta-thought here is that it is not an objection at all. What was the Renaissance but a reenactment? They found all this wonderful Greek and Roman stuff and said, come on let’s do it again, it looks great. Look at those domes, terrific! Plato’s dialogues, awesome!
Or again, the history of the left is a history of reenactment, think of the way in which the history of 20th century radicalism from Lenin to anarchism to Maoism to 1968 to contemporary insurrectionism like the Invisible Committee turns on the status of their relation to the Paris Commune and the question to which radical memory can claim the truth of the commune. Maybe new wine is always poured into old wineskins.
Staying with the idea of the third term, maybe there are other third terms. Another example is the concept of work. (Let's take) as our starting point in the observation that today the artist—defined by creativity, unconventionality, and flexibility—appears to be the role model for contemporary workers. Always creative, full of unconventionality and flexibility, the bohemians in general and the artists in particular are the perfect entrepreneurs. The questions we asked in each event, each of which included an artist and a theorist, were: how did this strange situation arise, where the artist becomes a career model, an aspirational figure in a fairly conventional sense, namely that they appear to be rich, don’t work hard and get to have lots of fun. We asked, more generally: what is the good of work? How and why did the future change from the sixties and seventies vision of a leisure society, that was sold to people like me (I was told at school that I would live to 120 years old and spend my life lounging around in brightly colored polyester clothing), to an exhausting life of increasingly purposeless work?
Furthermore, why is work valorized in contemporary society? What happened to the critique of labor and its radical potential from the Middle Ages (Franiscans, mendicants, mystical anarchists, Free Spirits) up through the strategies of the Situationists, the autonomists and others? As unemployment becomes an increasing reality, how might we think of unemployment as an artistic and philosophical category? This is a good example of how to organize a fruitful exchange between art and philosophy around a third term. There is also no doubt that questions of didacticism, pedagogy and education are strong candidates for such third terms.
For me the question of the relation between Art, capital A, and Theory, capital T or Philosophy capital P, misses the point entirely. These terms are just too big and clunky for me in relation to the work I try and do, in relation to the way I try to look, to think and to write. Let me explain how it usually works. For whatever reason, usually by chance, as I am not such a big gallery rat, I develop a liking for someone’s work. (Me too.) Sometimes I don’t know them, but sometimes I do. Sometimes I get to know them quite well and we begin to work together. This is what I’ve been doing a little lately with Philippe Parreno. When I talk to him or look at what he does, it is clear that it is not what I do, that is, his mode of articulation is very different, but our concerns are tightly related and we’re reading the same books and looking at the same things. When I was writing recently on his films, I wasn’t trying to impose a theory on them. I was trying to listen, to attend to something that I thought was going on there and then begin to articulate it in my way. We are dealing with different modes of articulation for the same matter, the same matter."
I met her at her studio last May and looked at some of this work, and we have exchanged e-mails. I saved one which, though very brief, I thought was extremely direct and to the point.
"Of all the identities ascribed to me there is only one that I have chosen for myself and that is feminist. While my multiple identities have been the generative source for and subject of my work, at the bottom it is a feminist analysis of politics, culture and art history that inform my work. Who has power and why? How is it expressed? What is it like to be marginal to that power? In the three bodies of work I present here I hope that message is loud and clear.
The Art History paintings were my first body of work to deal with what I perceive as my exclusion (as a woman) from the modernist painting canon, my first love. For me, it remains a poignant state of affairs.
I grew up in the NYC vicinity and prowled MoMA from 14 on, looking for an art that reflected my experience. Although I didn’t find it, that didn’t stop me from falling head-over-heels in love with Cezanne, Pollock, Stella, and Warhol. This exclusion, although painful, has given me a lifetime of content. For this I am extremely grateful.
Seeing the work of Elizabeth Murray as a young painter in the mid-70s changed my life. For the first time looking at a work of art I felt like the subject; that she was speaking both to and of me in her work. Murray was coming directly out of my favorite artists, but speaking a different language, a difference I understood immediately. It was Murray who gave me the idea of ”intervention,” because I saw her work as an intervention into the conventions of abstraction. Her paintings were based not only in formalism but also in her lived experience, specific, quirky, domestic. It was clear to me that she was, perhaps even unintentionally, destroying the greatest claim of post-war abstraction: universality.
In the '80s, as painting once again became dominated by men, the photo-based work of Levine, Sherman and Kruger reinforced much of the content of '70s feminist painters. Postmodernism, although it eschewed painting, had the theoretical and political structure on which to hang my ideas. Unfortunately painting was seen then as politically retrogressive. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I continued to paint.
The second body of work, The Warhol Project, was wish fulfillment. What if I was the subject of the canon? I used the work of Warhol for several reasons, the first being it’s ubiquity. I thought with the issue of style out the way, using an already established language I could say what I meant clearly. After the Art History Paintings, which were about my absence, I wanted to talk about my presence.
My reading in the '80s and early '90s sharpened the intellectual framework and specificity of my work. But postmodernism, feminist literary theory, critical race theory, and queer theory (in other words multiculturalism) simply did not include Jews. The omission was as glaring to me as the omission of women from the ongoing painting canon. In all the talk of difference, why was this one being ignored? Collective memory was disturbingly short. A brutal, obvious silence was at the core of the deconstructive discourse of multiculturalism and the art it spun off.
Yet again on the margins, I decided to use the most central artist of the 20th century, Andy Warhol. Artforum slammed my first Warhol show for my use of images of Barbra Streisand. “One Barbra does not equal one Jackie or Marilyn.” That of course was the point. Barbra, whose simple self-regard was utterly radical and disruptive, refused to and therefore couldn’t be re-absorbed into a male and gentile driven narrative. Streisand, the woman and Jew, completely controlled her own representation and narrative. This is her cultural meaning and importance.
The most recent body of work, “feel good paintings for feel bad times,” was started the day after I turned 50, early in the Bush administration. I knew the work would be a return to my roots: modernist painting, lyrics from the American Songbook, popular music, and Broadway shows. I knew it would be unabashedly and politically nostalgic for all that was under attack: post-war optimism, the middle class, and the most cherished idea of my youth, that the world was ours to change.
In the face of Bush/Cheney, the fetishization of power, wars, cynicism, profiteering, the systematic plundering of the eco and financial systems, and the dismantling of the Constitution and government, I wanted to imagine another “time and place for us.” Nostalgia seemed like the appropriate, if wistful, weapon to deploy and disrupt the ever more depressing sense of powerlessness. Every painting can be read as both personal and political. Remembering agency and hope seems like a good idea.
It’s what my work is about. DK May 2010 NYC
My Diary Entry From That Day:
The way I see it, in every painting is both a celebration of what Europeans thought about New York in the 1920s. '30s and '40s, and that it was the light and hope of the world, New York-ism held a Magic in their imaginations of what would be like to live in the world's most liberated hotbed of such artistic, musical, stylistic and technological innovation and cross cultural, trans-racial, socially liberal and politically progressive melting pot of literary and visual intellectual stimulation. It still seem to me growing up in Greenwich Village in the '60s–– People didn't get drunk and barbecue on Labor Day weekend. They went to conventions and seminars and talks and lectures on electronic music, atheism, African sculpture, civil rights, and what the environment would be like in the year 2000! And why that did that seem so I will leave the way far off in the distance at that time, the dire predictions I heard from NYU professors when I was 10 years old have now all come true.
The first year I was in New York, my father was getting his doctorate in education at NYU, and that meant that my mother and father were both basically unemployed, while I had to hold down a regular job, the third-grade at PS 41, the early 60s in Greenwich Village was so exciting, the city was still buzzing with excitement an enthusiasm over the future. Social upheaval, crime and civil rights and the flight to suburbia had just started in earnest. the decline of urban life after about 1966 was an indicator that America was fragmenting and loosing its way, and forgetting the value of the extraordinary community the city had created that benefited the entire world. My mother would gives me a note to take me an out of elementary school every Wednesday so that we could go to a Wednesday matinee of the Broadway musical. It seemed I always had a doctors appointment. finally, my teacher Mrs. Goldman, wonderful, called me up to her desk and showed me my mother's note and asked very sincerely, “Is everything okay?”
I said yes, being incapable of lying, we go to Broadway on Wednesdays so we can get cheap tickets, and my teacher smiled and said, "That's a good idea."
Back in May Deborah and I discussed How New York City and America got from there where it is today? A bleeding mess.
My own contemporary thesis looking around her studio at her paintings made me think that they referenced both the travesty, tragedy and the Majestic human comedy of the American postwar period since World War II, and and more particularly if they were a some crazy surrealistic punctuation mark to the greatest lost opportunity of our lifetime -- which was the end of the Cold War, when the world still loved to us, and we could've repurposed our economy away from Warner, or at least tried to rein in our hegemonic tendencies in favor of building a lasting peace, instead of preparing more perpetual opportunistic wars for oil. With the end of the Cold War, we could have retooled some of our bloated military industrial complex to export sustainable and renewable technologies, and further supported these major cultural and economic shifts by bringing the glory back to movies and art as the highest expressions of American freedom, intellectual and artistic achievement and spread the good news of democracy like we had done once before?
At the very end of World War II, the Europeans, and Japanese, had been in a complete foreign news and entertainment blackout, and the first thing that the Americans State Department decided to do was to send to every neighborhood and village that wanted one, compact electric record players and 16mm film projectors and boatloads of free American music and Hollywood movies, especially Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and historical epics like. "Gone With The Wind" of the 1930s and 40s, which was a wonderful, and brilliant, propaganda move, because people just went mad for them. Their impact was depicted in a number of Frederico Fellini movies of his memories of his youth in postwar Italy, where on Saturday nights, the town's people would string up a make shift movie screen made out of several white bed sheets and the entire town would gather in the street on benches to watch these movies, in English, without subtitles, screaming, applauding and roaring their approval for each different number and seeing entrance of their favorite characters.
This is the kind of cultural out reach and exchange that Nixon should've engaged with China, (if at all possible, and that was a little bit more of an extreme culture shock situation, but not anymore.) And George Bush Senior should have tried with the former Soviet Union, because the average Russian was obsessed with American culture, and it should have been less hegemonic, because we should have imported their Cinema, subtitled it English as well as other Eastern European movies, and shown them on PBS for the last 25 years, to bring the world closer -- so that we would feel more connected with these formally imperial zones, which we are supposedly now friends and allies with, but because we have let corporatist adversarial aggressive mafioso laissez-faire capitalism steer US foreign policy we still viewed as expendable enemies.
And what hit me as I stood up and looked around wasn't feeling of realization. I felt now understood your love of country and culture, and how your pride in and hopes for American culture, were now tempered by anger and despair, and how if the rest of the American culture industry could understand how we've lost the common global humanist identity we once had, that came from our creative classes, FDR, Hollywood, and postwar art, and how beneficial those things were to and unusual universal awareness of a odd mixture of Marxian and Jungian American Collective Classlessness Unconsciousness, they might once again feel pride in the American cultural experiment, and see how important it was to extend those values into actual actionable domestic and foreign policies? It's a tragic-comedic thing that ends in Greek tragedy of planetary proportions -- Our popular culture in part won the Cold War, hand we could have advanced the cause of global peace through cultural exchange, but and the progressive Democratic terrorists of the Rooseveltian revolution were long gone out of government. Replaced by Ronald Reagan's neoconservative, objectivist, Uber-Individualist mafioso capitalist ideologues, whose corporatist expansionism I characterized as being in this offer, "Take our system and accept our loans, or will break your legs and burn down your house." Which is not a very appealing offer. Which I could expand upon but not here, except to say, with all of its inherent self-destructive contradictions, that were predicted, by what would have to be big knowledge now as the greatest psychic of political and social science, and future history science fiction writer Karl Marx, unfettered, unopposed neoliberal capitalism has failed. Miserably. The victory of the Cold War was seen by corporatists only as an opportunity to maximize quarterly profits, and unintentionally, due to its systemic defects that Marx predicted, exploded beyond the capacity of the environment to support it, and created such extraordinary debts in the form of what he called, "fictitious capitalism," meaning capital that has no productive use in a real economy, that is going to destroy capitalism itself, and, by extension murders industrial civilization. It's a little too heavy, as I have just put it, but it's significant miscalculation of global import.
And I thought glancing around the room, this gives these paintings not only intellectual deep, but than they are of major historical significance. I'll explain it all next week.
End of part one of four parts, more tk next week.