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How It Got That Way

How It Got That Way
June 16, 1966

Most shows that are “about” something are boring even when the works in them are interesting. Such exhibitions usually are the bright ideas of museum functionaries who see it as their duty to educate or otherwise to molest the public. Of late the favored “thematic content” has been all Art History, and the criterion of selection generally has been somebody’s notion of “significance.” The typical catalogue piece is quick to establish the art’s pedigree above all else, perhaps excepting its novelty. The current paradigm demands that a work be at once fairly old and very new.

It’s a crazy situation. What makes it crazier is the docile way the new historicism lies down with the equally modish rage for identification of Cultural Phenomena. A presumed Development in the arts is seen as ipso facto a commentary on and an expression of the times (and how is YOUR sensibility coming along?), often before the paint on it is dry. Thus is the barn door flung open to the popular phrase-twirlers and it’s every man for himself. The slick magazines invented Pop five years ago and have mostly succeeded (with the help of general disarray and hysteria in critical ranks) in keeping obscure the essential differences between Batman posters and the great and good art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al. The same hackers have maintained the Myth of Op first promulgated by the publicists of the Museum of Modern Art, that is, the myth that Op actually exists as a discrete motive in art, against tons of evidence to the contrary. All this is bound to make discourse on historical point and order seem a little unreal, though in fact it makes such discourse a prerogative of just anybody. After all, everyone should be concerned with his times, n’est-ce pas? and the current conviction that art is a fail-safe barometer to the times makes art and the artist seem public utilities.

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A Bit Uneasy

Naturally, people who have imbibed this mythic hash but still (as ever) know nothing about art tend to get a bit uneasy. This is where the shows “about” things come in — instant short courses in one or another Right Idea about what’s happening (or about what has been or was or will be happening), in which the student need never so much as admit his ignorance: He has the perfect alibi of having come to a museum to look at paintings.

But what, meanwhile, has happened to those paintings? Mainly, a grid has been dropped between the work and the viewer automatically selecting and enforcing the Insight that has been concocted for his edification. Witness the Modern’s Turner show (a kind of apotheosis), “Illusion and Reality” — Everyman an Art Historian — “Look, ma, imitations of abstractions!” It should perhaps be possible to ignore the pedagogy and just to look at the works, but it’s easy to prefer the museum’s superb snack bar to the effort. And now I see by the Modern’s prospectus that its upcoming Matisse retrospective is going to “stress… the qualities of ‘ecstasy and tranquility’ which he continuously sought.” Unbelievable!

People (non-artists, non-students, non-patrons) used to resist fine art; now they flock to it — by every available short-cut. Not that I’m “against” this. In the words of Ted Berrigan, “Get the money!” Meanwhile, however, the fact of boredom remains, as does the cold fact that you get out of a work of art exactly what you bring to it.

***

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Before they got totally out of hand, the above reflections were meant as an introduction to an interesting exhibition which continues at the Finch College Museum (64 East 78th Street) until June 30. Its called “Art in Process” and it’s “about” “the steps these artists have taken to develop their work,” to which end the museum has bolstered with drawings, models, and related material an accumulation of finished works by 18 artists, many of whom were presented in the Jewish Museum’s latest Significant-type show, the “Primary Structures” melange. It seems an especially timely idea. “Conceptual art” (roughly, art visualized before it is executed) has a way of seeming fortuitous, no one’s responsibility. This quality may be nicely astringent, and in fact indispensable to the art’s aesthetic, but our curiosity about the work as personal manifestation is not eradicated through not being served. Now here we are offered documentation of how the stuff got to be the way it is. We might expect to be grateful.

As it turns out, the show fails in its ambition to instill a sense of “process.” But it does instill, almost accidentally, a lively sense of art. In effect, the big, finished works, some of them marvelous, are seen in relief against the mostly bland little drawings, hen-scratched notebooks, etc., which, if they ever make their presence felt, generally do on their own steam. The effect is a heightened appreciation of the finished product. When you look from Don Judd’s ho-hum sketch to the huge red galvanized-steel wall construction that, somehow, proceeded from it, you get a notion of what “genius” is. You’re left, in the end, to reflect that the essential steps in a creative process are almost always invisible — by any account, enough Truth for one summer month. All museum exhibitions should fail so benignly.

There is, however, at least one exception. The presence en masse of Will Insley’s drawings and cardboard and masonite models — the cardboard models on a flimsy paper shelf, the bright-colored masonite “stand-ups” on a big table designed by he artist — is terrifically impressive. They’re all so GOOD! Even the tiny cardboard things, with their faint evocation of rainy-day handicraft, are exquisitely realized dialogues of line and plane among other things, and the drawings positively jump with the energy of ideation. What comes across is not so much “process” as a thoroughly classical belief in the uniform viability on all levels of the artistic impulse, which, however, naturally aspires to grandeur. Had one of Insley’s really big works been present, he might irretrievably have stolen the show.

As it is, a couple of other things hold their own (along with Don Judd’s, already mentioned). Notable are the “minimal” (s0-called) constructions of Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. Morris offers a pristine off-white tetrahedron, stuck in a corner so as to offer only one oblique face to the room. You feel it before you see it, a simple and emphatic tic in the environment, a quirk in the order of things — as inevitable as the weather but more beautiful, because you can touch it. LeWitt’s absolutely rectilinear, booth-shaped framework of black wood assumes a sullen center stage. It is unapproachable, a trifle ugly, strong and very funny. It seems designed to freak out the other works near it.

Which is precisely what Dan Flavin’s yellow, diagonally hung fluorescent light (eight feet long) does to the other works in the room devoted to neon sculpture. It is so handsome and curiously moving (as sign and gesture), it makes its complex neighbors seem hopelessly lurid and confused.

No one general impulse can be said to dominate this polyglot congregation, but for me the reductive tendency, toward the very barest of statements, comes off best. The seemingly more “ambitious” works (excepting maestro Insley’s and those, for sure, of Richard Artschwager and Lyman Kipp) often are only too well served by the supplementary material. Their conceptions creak. They seem somehow cooked-up, marriages of dubiously matched ideas, impure, if only under the diamantine aspect of Morris, Flavin, et al. There is a powerful mythic quality to this art of the minimum (perhaps “of our time” but I wouldn’t know), an image of the artist at once nutty and heroic — the artist doing a single, vaguely hieratical thing almost “whether he likes it or not,” running the lifelong risk of boring himself to death in quest of the irreducible that happens to please. The absolutely accurate shot in the dark. One guesses the idea will never get so popular as seriously to tempt the curators, this being all to its honor and to the general good.

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Art: Appraising Passions

Appraising Passions
January 7, 1981

More is happening in American art right now than ever before. There is more of everything and of everybody, including critics. There is more public interest and much more money — not necessarily in that order. There is a lot of confusion, fatigue, hysteria, cynicism, and paranoia. Sometimes I wonder how anyone in the vicinity stays sane. There is something faintly unwholesome — heavily made-up and neon-lit-about the scene, but it is very exciting.

Today anything, though of course not everybody, sells, and the effect on our experience of art is retroactive. Laid out and organized by the scholars and curators, the modern canon has become a vast and teeming bazaar. The recent succession of historical exhibitions has been wonderful: Picasso, Post-Impressionism, the Russian avant-garde of 1910–1930, Expressionism, Hopper, on and on. We have the effects of a frantic art market to thank for much of this revivalism. Thanks, market.

Modern art history has ceased to represent a road traveled, and has come to seem an encircling panorama. All of it is available, ripe, ours. (There is a tendency to feel a little oppressed and guilty, a little unworthy of it, hence resentful, flip.) The phrase “Post-Modern,” which everyone hates and uses compulsively, expresses the almost metaphysical strangeness of our time. It connotes “post-present.” If something travels faster than light, where is it? Or, rather, when is it? The feeling today is a bit like that. We have this inkling of a historical momentum that at some point — whoops! — outdistanced history.

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The writing of Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash at age 35 in 1973 on the site of one of his Earthworks, are indispensable in trying to think about all this. Polemicist for Minimalism, science-fiction addict, mystifier and prophet, he used the phrase “post-modernism” in the late ’60s, rhapsodized about pluralism and cosmic entropy, “crystalline” as opposed to “linear” history, and an aesthetic of waste, sediment, and ruin. He had already made himself deliriously at home in the post-historical house of mirrors we have all come to inhabit, trying not to fall down out of sheer disorientation.

As corporate capitalism becomes more enveloping, rationalized, and sterile, art is increasingly vested with the function of representing the repressed, factored-out, amputated life of the emotions, the thwarted — and dangerous when thwarted — sum of the sexual and survival instincts that Freud called Eros. Mere evidence of the human hand, a mere brushstroke, glows today with talismanic intensity. All sorts of people respond reflexively to such things, corporate capitalists no less needy and responsive than anyone else. The art that holds this charge is speedily bought and sold, plunged into the originally offending medium of money like hot metal into ice water. No wonder our vision gets steamed over.

Dealers run the show today. There are more good dealers and they are more influential, as well as richer, than ever before. Dispensers to artists of the erotic warmth of acceptance and, figuratively, love-money, and dispensers to the world of the commodity that is Eros objectified, dealers are smack at the crossroads of contradiction. To think of them is to imagine a flicker of images — angel and monster, the best and the worst. To think too long and hard is to risk throwing up.

Beneath hip veneers, many journalistic art critics today are testy, defensive, and carping. This may be because they are beset from without by hordes of the recognition-starved (one’s mail some mornings is like a nest of open-mouthed baby birds) and from within by a haunted sense of their own powerlessness. Such purposeful power as critics used to have disappeared with the time-lag between the appearance of something new and its acceptance, a transition that dealers manage now seemingly in a matter of hours. The artworldly function of critics has become largely cere­monial: after-dinner speakers at the vic­tory party. Thus critics tend to dig in their heels.

The average piece of bad criticism a decade ago cozied up to some rising artist or art idea and implied that anyone who couldn’t see the critic’s jargon as a form of higher common sense was an idiot. The average piece of bad criticism today reads like something from Consumer Reports. The art is tested; its tires are kicked. Pretensions to importance are attributed, inspected, and dismissed. The critic glories in remaining unmoved: “Ha ha, you missed me!” More artists hate — really hate — more critics today than ever before.

I’m talking here about relatively young critics, in the same generation as today’s emerging artists. They are filling a vacuum left by art writers of my generation (I’m 38) and the preceding one, many of whom have quit journalism, victims of the rate and directions of change — honorable victims often, heartsick at the eclipse of much they cared about and the triumph of much they despise. The newer critics are the progeny of a new semi-educated middle-class audience that repels the older critics. This audience has some vir­tues, including an influential appreciation of clarity and style in criticism. Its vices, faithfully mirrored by many critics, include laziness, voyeurism, cynicism, and envy.

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This has been coming for a long time. In 1975 I left the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section after years of regular contributing because, as the new editor explained to me, “heavy criticism” was being de-emphasized. I still had a job if I wanted it. “There’s a big future in this business,” my amazed ears heard him saying, “for a young man who will be an investigative reporter in the art world.” Maybe with the same speech, the editor got someone else to write a prying but toothless piece on Castelli, which I believe exhausted the idea. At about the same time, Tom Wolfe’s incredibly misinformed The Painted Word was a best-seller.

The art world, with its traditions of personal dealing and secrecy, its intimidating spaces, and its dizzying mixture of ineffable values and effable bucks, rouses anxieties that are allayed by suspicions of cabal. The main fact missed by “outsiders” is not that the “inside” is an assembly of angels, but that the inside does not exist. The art world is a balkanized anarchy, with lots of little insides, lots of little games, better and worse people, hierophants and hustlers. Meanwhile there is art, available to anyone who has a personal use for it. Love of and hope for art are the only solid ground in this swampy, fecund craziness.

Nothing in today’s torrent of art seems great and epochal, but how could it? The historical sense that underlay avant-garde greatness, replacing the social agreements of pre-“modern” times, is gone, and nothing replaces it. We are obliged to remake from scratch the foundations of our taste, as of our politics and our very lives. Old ways of judging linger as unexamined habits, comforting defenses against the recognition of our common lostness. Thus defended, one is deprived of the com­pensatory joy of current liberty and prof­usion. I want to affirm these values, so costly to everyone’s peace of mind, and to encourage others who affirm them, too. ■

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Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

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So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

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Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

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Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

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Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”1772″ /]

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara

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Clemente to Marden to Kiefer: It’s the All-Eighties Art-Stars

Clemente to Marden to Kiefer

Art lovers in New York and baseball fans everywhere get weird in October. For the former, it is the season of undulled appetite, when an unleashed flood of new objects and images temporarily scintillates with interest and promise. For the latter, it is the ferociously accelerating climax to long languorous months of foreplay. What, then, of those of us for whom both art and baseball are chronic passions? Pity us! Each addiction being, in its own way, total, we are besides ourselves.

A tendency is noted around dinner tables to discuss the aesthetics of baseball at very great length, as the sane and the innocent tiptoe from the room.

Another tendency suggests itself as a heretofore neglected possibility: view the world of October art through the lambent October mists of baseball. A method for such madness happens to be ready-made in a brilliant little book of several years back by poet Charles North, Lineups (reprinted in his Leap Year, Kulchur Foundation, 1978). North proved by example that any quantitative category of qualitatively diverse units — movies, colors, dis­eases, etc. — can be subjected to the subtle yet ineluctable analysis of talent and temperament that determines a baseball player’s optimum position in the field and place in the batting order. For instance:
San Francisco ss
Munich cf
Paris lf
Rome c
Madrid 3b
London rf
Athens 1b
Istanbul 2b
New York p

Isn’t that great? My only trouble with this lineup is North’s National League purism, which deprives him of the delicious wild card of the designated hitter. (Havana, batting seventh.)

So. With collaboration from art journal­ist and hardball fancier Gerald Marzorati, I recently set about compiling a roster of present art stars according to the Northian Paradigm. Carried away, I have embellished it with analytic descriptions in that important American folk-poetic form, the scouting report. Marzorati and I set certain rules — that all named artists should be roughly of baseball-playing age, that all should be coming off hot seasons, etc. — and broke them repeatedly. For the relative absence of abstract painters, per­formance artists, realists, sculptors, and women I have no defense. For the presence of Europeans, presumably good only for belaboring balls with their feet, I have no explanation. This is just the way, in the frenzy of free association, it turned out.

Please note that a batting order is not an order of preference. Actually, if you can’t interpret one, don’t guess; ask a friend who can. With that, the lineup:

Francesco Clemente, shortstop: smooth, great range and hands, great off-balance arm…switch hitter, weak bat but outstanding on-base knack, good eye, will bunt for hit…threat to steal.

Cindy Sherman, third base: middling range but super quickness, Gold Glove, hasn’t missed a ball hit her way in two seasons…disciplined hitter, pulls inside pitch for distance…selfless player, cinch to sac bunt or hit behind runner.

David Salle, center field: uncanny range and glove, fluid speed, [Roberto] Clemente type, makes it look easy…line­-drive hitter all fields, league-leader doubles and triples, rally-maker…temperamental, injury prone.

Anselm Kiefer, first base: two-ton Teuton, just adequate at position, can be bunted on…fearsome slugger, aggressive, bad-ball hitter, can take anything down­town…slow but intimidating on bases, catcher advised not to block plate.

Julian Schnabel, right field: Reggie Jackson clone…erratic glove, grandstand catches may follow initial misjudgment, arm strong but wild…picture swing, strikeouts and homers in bunches, scary in clutch…Mr. October.

Ken Price, designated hitter: pure hitter, great bat control, strokes the ball, consistent .300…no threat on bases.

Brice Marden, second base: keystone pro, range limited but good jump, unreal pivot…tough out, sometime power…knows the game, team captain.

Susan Rothenberg, left field: me­dium glove, unstylish but determined, body-blocks short hop…strict pull hitter, streak power…consistent effort, home­town favorite.

Joel Shapiro, catcher: solid, smart, calls a good game, good arm but release has lost snap…contact hitter, rarely strikes out, longball infrequent…slow but wily on bases.

And on the mound:

Frank Stella, starting pitcher: ageless vet, owns the ball…heat diminished but sneaky with awesome pitch assortment, super control, mixes speeds, throws changeup for strike…competitor, will brushback.

Ed Ruscha, short relief: submarine delivery…indifferent heat but slider and screwball sparkle, keeps everything low.

Jonathan Borofsky, long relief: ev­ery kind of slow, junk exclusively…jughandle curve, great knuckler, confusing windup…control doubtful.

Keith Haring, pinch runner: rabbit speed, incautious but known to outrun pickoff, first to third on anything.

So there’s the team a formidable one (with a payroll to match ). Will I stop here? Would you?

General Managers: Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns.

Manager: Leo Castelli

Coaching Staff: Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Malcolm Morley, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol.

Scouts: Betsy Baker, Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon.

Batboy: Scott Burton.

Trainer: Chris Burden.

Ground Crew: Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer.

Statistician: Lawrence Alloway.

Umpiring Crew: Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Ben­jamin H. D. Buchloh. (Krauss Crimp Owens Buchloh — they even sound like umpires.) Rulebook deconstructionists, they tend to award first base on foul balls and to throw everybody out of the game.

National Anthem: Laurie Anderson.

Bird Mascot: Rene Ricard.

Howard Cosell: Hilton Kramer.

And so on. (Additions and alternatives invited.)

Some might object to the above on the grounds that art is not a game. But then neither is baseball.

It occurs to me that two years ago most of my lineup would have been different. The next two years undoubtedly will make another wholesale revision. At any given moment, certain individuals seem invested with the drama of urgent issues, tastes, and yearnings, but of course it’s not all their doing. These individuals slip into and then out of focus as cultural attention shifts between near and far, surface and depth, center and periphery. Energy and quality do count, but always in context. A home run is just a lost ball if no one who cares is watching. Knowledge of art pre­pares you for what you feel on seeing a genuinely new work: that you have been waiting and waiting for only this thing. The meaning of ritual events is, being al­ways the same, to hone the edge of the unique present, the instant that will never repeat and never be forgotten.

Think of the way baseball balances its star system with long, long rhythms of life and time. Each season begins in careless spring and ends in darkening autumn, and baseball’s present is absolutely continuous with the ever-renewed memory of stars and seasons gone before any of us were born. Each baseball star’s career mounts through classical stages, from rough youth to honored old age (usually before 40) — a standard trajectory indelibly imbued with the individual’s legend. In the beginning is the end, and vice versa. It’s something fans savor in October.

Art is crueler. At least in modern times, the rhythms are short and broken. The unflagging, continually compelling career is a rarity. There is no rulebook. Art’s very premises can seem to change overnight. (They don’t, really, but the shape of art’s continuity is so vast and dim that it is apprehended only in the best moments of the best minds.) “Stardom ” is chancy in the long as well as the short run: it can be conferred or snatched away posthumously. The culture’s uses for art alter constantly. Treasures become white elephants, and the other way around, in a twinkling. Great art returns, but in ways and for reasons that would amaze its makers.

Isn’t there a softening poignance in all this contingency? Such vicious tem­porality — the still-operating syndrome of 15-minute fame — may represent some harsh, necessary wisdom of democracy, as I’m sure Tocqueville (that smart aleck ) once said somewhere. We’ll permit all sorts of people to dominate, if only for the fun of knocking them down. This is so much part of us that complaining about it is probably a waste of breath. On to Halloween.

[related_posts post_id_1=”381994″ /]

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The Feeler

“What Turns Shy Boy Into Sex Killer?” A fantastic headline concocted by 20-year-old cub reporter Peter Schjeldahl for the Jersey City Journal circa 1963, the unlikely phrase tumbled through my skull’s traps and chutes as I sat down to a season-opening lunch with The New Yorker‘s ace art critic. “Killer turns into shy boy?” Nope. “Art critic turns into sex killer?” Plausible, but not here. “Shy boy turns into killer art critic?” Now we’re getting somewhere!

While the cliché of a killer from the wheat-growing hinterlands is standard Hollywood fare (cue picture of Robert Blake), few stories are as improbable as Schjeldahl’s real-world transformation from small-town literary hick into major-league aesthete. A North Dakota–born, Minnesota-raised book nerd besotted with poetry—as youths eternally were before the Beatles—Schjeldahl dropped out of college, weighed his meager options, then literally drew lots to decide which of four major U.S. cities would host his budding, taciturn genius. New York won out—thankfully for generations of readers who’ve been weaned on his generous insights, capacious taste, and sparklingly clean prose.

Landing in Hoboken, Schjeldahl first applied himself to beat journalism while writing poetry. Admittedly “too self-conscious to be a good reporter,” he soon learned from folks he fell in with—Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara—that art writing was something else poets could do to earn money. This led him, legend goes, to place a pay-phone call to
Thomas Hess, then crackerjack editor of ARTnews
magazine. Schjeldahl breathlessly pumped his nonexistent qualifications. “Never mind all that,” Schjeldahl says Hess shot back. “Just write me a letter telling me what makes you think you’re qualified to walk into a gallery where some poor bastard has his paintings and tell him they are no good.”

This, in a nutshell, is how Peter Schjeldahl, America’s most important living art critic, came to write about art. The unacknowledged dean of a bastard profession, Schjeldahl—far more than most people—has racked up a life brimming with fortuitous accidents, awkward encounters, and roads taken, then reversed. One such encounter took place in 1976 when he wrote out a public valedictory, chucking in art criticism for poetry. Read in front of a paying audience in Chicago, Schjeldahl’s ax-grinder of a poem named art-world names, a fact that probably still makes its author cringe. Years later—after a Tinseltown sojourn with his current wife, the actress Brooke Alderson—Schjeldahl did an about-face, and dropped poetry for art criticism. In the introduction to his upcoming book, Let’s See: Writings on Art From The New Yorker (due in April), Schjeldahl avoids reference to this change of heart, except where he credits luck—the peculiar, face-reddening, insomnia-tamping luck experienced when he “discovered that what you had been doing for money is what you were meant to do.”

“A great critic,” according to Oscar Wilde, “is susceptible to beauty, and to the various impressions that beauty gives us.” So it is with Schjeldahl, a man burdened with the kind of sensibility that in others turns crippling. “Give me a Rembrandt in a subway station toilet and a flashlight and I’m happy,” he told me over a diner hamburger. The owner of a contrarian, prickly personality a friend described as “aggressively shy,” the 65-year-old critic has seen his share of difficulties: a bit of hard-earned penury, a divorce, problems with booze, a lifetime spent nursing his olympically formed doubt. About the latter, Schjeldahl quotes De Kooning: “No fear but a lot of trembling.” Incredibly for a veteran of the trenches, his “trembling” extends to writing at length. “I’m a river navigator,” he told me later over a walk in Central Park. “I need the bank behind me and one in front. Over 2,000 words and I’m toast.”

The only national chronicler of the expanding circus of art, Schjeldahl has spent four decades writing for publications like ARTnews, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. At The New Yorker since 1998, Schjeldahl transitioned from writing weekly to bimonthly copy, while zeroing in on his favorite subjects. There is painting, on which he has had a schoolboy crush since ogling Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Italy (he describes a second life-changing epiphany, seeing Warhol’s flower paintings in Paris, as “someone kicking open the doors of a blast furnace”), and beauty, a concept he describes as “the A-bomb of art criticism.” “Paintings are the longest, most important vacations from myself,” Schjeldahl volunteers with characteristic frankness. On aesthetics, he can be just as personal: “Beauty is as important to the organism as digestion.”

A writer whose reviews have, on occasion, been scathing enough to peel the bark off a tree, Schjeldahl is a critic best known for his enthusiasms. A carrier of a sharply calibrated style of compression—”two ideas per sentence,” he has said—Schjeldahl’s writing acquires special probity when it turns to subjects dear to his heart. A Velázquez portrait (“The textures are an express elevator to heaven”), Cindy Sherman’s photographs (“This is photography as one-frame moviemaking”), fireworks (“an everlasting miracle of human invention”)—these and other favorite things are capable of moving him to some of the highest expressions of pleasure on record. Self-exposures as much as pointed raves, Schjeldahl’s staunchly intelligible passions constitute the most immediate, articulate, unapologetically delightful takes on contemporary art we have.

“Writing things that people want to read is my bread and butter,” Schjeldahl said as we trolled for late summer art in Gagosian’s uptown gallery. It shows. Generously vernacular, his writing assumes a general audience for art that has expanded, despite the lucubrations of some schooled experts. I reflected on this as we walked around a John Chamberlain sculpture of crushed metal (“Not again?”), a Wayne Thiebaud still life of a supine woman (“Um, no”), into a room bright enough to require shades. “I’d take one of these,” Schjeldahl said, considering a Damien Hirst butterfly print encrusted with diamond dust. After I interjected something about the recent hubbub surrounding Hirst’s jeweled skull, he continued as if completing a thought: “There’s a large section of the middle to upper part of the market that likes name cachet and the decorative,” he explained. “And I don’t much care one way or the other.”

This month, in an article about the Venice Biennale in Artforum, the art historian and critic Katy Siegel christened Schjeldahl and his old friend, the writer Dave Hickey, as “the feelers”—this in opposition to another critical gang she sturdily termed “the thinkers” (namely, Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin Buchloh). A jab with unintended blandishments, it accidentally fingers the scab Schjeldahl scratches raw whenever he is pricked by visual pleasure. A “feeler” above all things, Schjeldahl is a self-confessed addict to the intoxicant of pleasure (and also coffee and cigarettes). Consequently, it doesn’t take much to draw him out on the subject of art with an agenda. “I think art is about 100 percent pleasure,” Schjeldahl answers when asked about political programmatic art. “Criticality is a pleasure for people who like it.”

“Maybe we need a new 12-step program,” Schjeldahl joked as we studied a Velázquez portrait of Philip IV at the Frick. “My name is Peter, and I’m an aesthete.” Of course, in a democracy, aesthetes are not born but made, I thought. An autodidact at nearly everything, Schjeldahl is living proof of this democracy of elites. As I scanned the painting for other ideas, a line from Theodore Roethke came to mind: “Feeling is thinking.” Then the Velázquez—an old friend of Schjeldahl’s from repeated visits—almost winked back.

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Reaction Shot

John Currin may be the perfect artist for this administration: He’s a compassionate conservative. He calls himself a “conservative figure painter.” He’s sort of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of painting: charismatic, ballsy, and hyped. Maybe it’s a New York need for heroes, what artist Douglas Blau calls a “validation of the inevitable,” or a

need to be in on a consensus, but occasionally, like clockwork, American critics give it up for an artist—usually a white, male, German one. It’s like the critics are getting high on their own fumes. In the ’80s, there were Kiefer, Baselitz, Polke, and Richter. In 2000 everyone rolled over for Andreas Gursky. Closer to home, there were David Salle, Eric Fischl, and the lone lady, Cindy Sherman. As uppity as it sounds, whether these artists are good or not, it’s annoying to watch this type of critical tsunami form and become a thing unto itself.

Now it’s Currin’s turn. Almost all of the reviews of his current Whitney retrospective have been positive. Work previously labeled “obscene,” “phallocentric,” “terminally cynical,” and “classist,” is now hailed as “riveting,” “inexhaustible,” “earnest,” and “thrilling.” My esteemed colleague Kim Levin, who famously quipped, “Boycott this show” in 1993, recently dubbed Currin “our premier mannerist.” My eloquent friend Peter Schjeldahl wrote that it’s impossible “to resist Currin’s claim to preeminence.” I like some of Currin’s work a lot; his paintings present a complicated case to friend and foe. However, as with the war in Iraq, an inversion has taken place around Currin: He’s often represented as doing one thing when he’s doing the exact opposite.

Almost every review lauds Currin’s “phenomenal” skill. He’s compared to Botticelli, Cranach, Dürer, and Manet. Currin is a solid, skilled painter. However, his work is more optical than physical. His technique has the look of some of these artists but not the heat. Often, up close, nothing that absorbing is happening on his surfaces. Sometimes, the way he paints isn’t that different from the style of artists Currin’s admirers dislike—Odd Nerdrum, Vincent Desiderio, or sundry American Regionalists, for instance. Regardless, with Currin means are being mistaken for ends.

Currin has gotten good at underpainting and Northern Renaissance modes of depiction. Still, his black-background nudes of the last few years aren’t as complex as the work that preceded them. His earlier paintings aren’t as precious or finicky as later ones. Their dryness, opacity, and localized color involve less mimicry of Renaissance techniques and cheesy expressiveness; the characters are more ambiguous, inbred, dysfunctional, and delicate. Currin’s accomplishment is not his crackerjack craftsmanship; it’s the way he reinserted ideas about “quality” into the artistic conversation. Critics haven’t waxed this poetic about the way a turkey has been painted since the Norman Rockwell show.

Writers gush that Currin is “sincere.” Yet most artists are sincere these days. Praising sincerity is like praising beauty or truth: It sounds good but doesn’t say much. It’s also a sneaky way of saying, “Irony is dead”—and let’s hope no form of humor ever dies. In truth, Currin’s paintings are nothing if not double-edged. What distinguishes his work is not its sincerity but how twistedly and wickedly insincere it is. Currin is sincere the way pornography is sincere: The line between what’s feigned and unfeigned is blurred. When he’s on, Currin opens a fascinatingly disquieting psycho-visual space. As with pornography, when he’s off, his work turns unintentionally silly.

Currin’s supporters say he’s “influential.” In fact, a number of his painterly peers— Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Takashi Murakami, Luc Tuymans, Laura Owens, and Matthew Ritchie, among them—have influenced other artists more with their individual styles. This doesn’t make them better or Currin worse. It means that Currin’s style is so particular that no one else can work in it. Likewise, mi amigo Schjeldahl contends that Currin “rehabilitates fallen practices of visual storytelling” and restores to painting “its ancient functions of illustration and rhetorical persuasion.” This is a vague claim but I think the same could be said of scores of current painters. Oldsters like Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, and John Wesley have manipulated the figure for years; and younger artists like Lisa Yuskavage, Kara Walker, Karen Kilimnik, and Trenton Doyle Hancock must think they’re illustrating something. Currin is neither a storyteller nor an illustrator. His narratives are cryptic and his paintings keep you at arm’s length. He pools various painting languages to make his own, compressing and distilling ideas and attitudes in paradoxically peculiar and droll ways. His paintings are like clowns: comic, creepy, tacky, freakish. Think of the “feel-bad” comedy of Larry David—the discomfort, exaggeration, and misanthropic obnoxiousness. That’s the dodgy place Currin’s best work edges into.

Currin’s paintings can come on strong and strange. However, I was surprised at how familiar, unweird, overly jokey, and not “inexhaustible” many of the pictures at the Whitney looked. On the good side, several recent paintings suggest he’s no longer just mellowing, but ripening. My favorite things about him are the high level of specificity in his work, how he engages a wide audience, and the original way he uses photographic sources while shunning photographic space—although his backgrounds and his notion of figure-ground are quite conventional. In the end, Currin stands up to a mid-career survey but not the critical craze.


Email: jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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Out There

After his show closes to the public this week, Matthew Ritchie ought to bolt the doors at Andrea Rosen, move in, and spend as much time as he can figuring out how to make good on the promise and possibilities of his fourth solo outing in New York. Nearly every element on view could be intensified until it bloomed into something stunning.

Ritchie has turned the gallery into a walk-in painting. A cosmological lightbox sits in the entryway. All the walls are painted a creamy yellow, dappled with doodles, diagrams, and kooky slogans like “You may already be a winner.” An immense collage slithers off one wall. A cross between Hokusai’s Great Wave and a computer rendition of a cave painting, it depicts a whiplashing undulation, a green cyclone, scribbles, and an exploding ovum spewing serpentine tentacles. A little, bumpy floor-thing extends in front of it. Four paintings brim with quasi-biomorphic, geometric shapes, weird mathematical formulas, and allusions to all sorts of theories and mythologies. The whole thing’s like some private chapel of the birth of the universe.

With this show, Ritchie, 36, delves deeper into the scientific-mystic world he’s been developing since 1995. The paintings are more fun to look at, and look like they were more fun to make. They’re looser; colors are brighter; compositions aren’t as hard-edged or jigsaw-like. Thankfully, cartoon characters are on the wane. Most important, the elements that surround the paintings create a unifying updraft. All this comes as a relief, for as original as Ritchie’s previous work was, it could also be monotonous, mechanical, and dry.

In 1967, Sol LeWitt said he wanted the idea to become “a machine that makes art.” Ritchie takes this notion to the nth degree. Ritchie’s painting machine is a condensation of fantasy, physics, alchemy, and God knows what. The juiciest thing about it is that it seems to have a mind and a metabolism of its own. It generates pictures, shapes, iconographies, story lines, characters, and compositions he probably can’t predict. The knock on him is that without an explanation, you can’t get his work. Reviewers use words like indecipherable, complicated, or obscure to describe his art. The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl says he thinks Ritchie’s playing a cagey game of “For me to know and you never to find out.”

I disagree. In the first place, art isn’t something you get. You don’t get Johns’s Flag, a bunch of dots by Kusama, or Kara Walker’s cutouts. Additionally, if you look at Ritchie’s exhibition, patterns emerge. Every work is an elaboration on every other work. Everything’s connected. Follow any one element, shape, or character, and kingdoms of possibility open up.

Take the color red. A number of crimson bumps or barnacles grow on the wall mural’s blue tentacles. Whatever they are, one of these clusters appears in M Theory, a painting which depicts this red mass spewing all sorts of bizarre shapes, rainbows, and globules. A nearby work, Anti-City, picks up on this eruption as a series of upside-down obelisks and greenish chips that issue out of the underside of the red shape. The outcome of all this can be seen in one of three works titled Parents and Children, in which the little chips coalesce into a planetoid that sprouts three tree forms. One is a kind of burning bush encircled by a yellow tornado; another is inscribed with the names of various plants; the last features the names of animal life-forms written on its trunk, proceeding from sponges, mollusks, fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and Neanderthals to us—Homo sapiens.

Without explanation, Ritchie’s work adds up. His themes are grand—the beginning and the end of time—but his package is zestful and accessible. It’s fun to muse along with him. As far as we know, the universe was born 10 to 15 billion years ago. Ten to the 43rd of a second later, gravity came into being. Ten to the fifth of a second after this, light appeared. A minute later, neutrons and protons began coalescing into elements. Five billion ago, the earth was formed. Simple DNA occurred about 3.3 billion years after that. Then, 40,000 years ago—after a lot of this and that—we happened: Homo sapiens became the only surviving humanoid species on earth. Whether it’s hubris, absurdity, mumbo jumbo, or wishful thinking, that’s the time frame and the subject of this exhibition.

Yet for all his ambition, this show suggests Ritchie could go much further. Although he handles Rosen’s soaring space as ingeniously as anyone since Wolfgang Tillmans, things feel a little incomplete. The lightbox isn’t integrated into the exhibition, the floor feels puny, the space a bit barren. Ritchie is interested in never-ending stories, in the Gesamtkunstwerk, and abstraction. He wants painting to do a lot. But he doesn’t do a lot to the surfaces of his paintings; he’s never so much as sewn a button to his canvases. Contrary to complaints of complexity, Ritchie could cover galleries with wild, wavy walk-on floors; wall murals could envelop whole spaces; ceilings could come into play; who knows what he could do with the lightboxes. In terms of intellect and cleverness, Ritchie is one of the more promising painters around. Still, that ingenuity needs to be converted into something more purely visual. A bastard child of synthetic cubism and conceptualism, he has found a way to make art about big things. His work is out there. He just needs to take it further out.