EssaysWeekend

Let Us Now Praise Humble Artists

In this time of self-isolation and social distancing, shouldn’t the art world consider celebrating artists who don’t require expensive materials or run up high production costs?

Richard Van Buren, “Untitled” (2020), ink on paper, 11×14 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

What happens when art fabricators and studio assistants are considered non-essential workers during a nationwide shutdown due to a highly contagious disease? What happens when the studio assistant, who has signed an NDA, cannot travel across town to her job painting pouty crimson lips, steely gray pupils, or a horse’s fetlock on an art star’s masterwork? Does the halt in production mean the entrepreneurial artist cannot keep making art?

According to Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, old people should be willing to volunteer to die to save the economy. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other well-heeled pundits and commentators agree with Patrick. We’ve got to get the economy going, they sing. Shouldn’t fabricators and studio assistants — whatever their age — also volunteer to sacrifice themselves so that the genius-artist can continue producing great new works of art? Don’t they want to save the art world’s economy, which is such an integral part of the one percent’s portfolio?

Last weekend, Richard Van Buren sent me images of ink pen drawings that he has been making while living in lockdown in Maine. I do not remember ever seeing any drawings by Van Buren, an artist whose sculptures I have written about a number of times, most likely because no gallery has ever exhibited them. I will have to ask him if this is the case.

That Van Buren’s drawings are modest in size — they all measure 11 by 14 inches, he tells me in an email — reminded me of an issue the art world has long ignored.

Richard Van Buren, “Untitled” (2020), ink on paper, 11×14 inches

With increasing fanfare since the 1980s, collectors, critics, mega-galleries, and museums have routinely celebrated materialist excess, oversized artworks meant for the vast spaces of corporate lobbies, Neo-Georgian estates, and McMansions, flawlessly executed by studio assistants and fabricators, none of whom ever get credit — the latest line of brand-name products, savvy examples of entrepreneurship claiming to be critical of capitalism.

It seems that by hiring others to make something cleanly and efficiently, you qualify as a conceptual artist relying on a tried-and-true process by which the idea becomes the desired thing.

While many Ivy League-educated critics, tenured Ivy League educators, and heavyweight institutions have claimed that this art was born under the sign of Marcel Duchamp, I see it as a betrayal of Duchamp. After all, Duchamp never developed a signature style. He did not replicate a urinal in different materials, nor present viewers with the latest 100 Readymades. He was neither dependable nor prolific in his production. He coined the description “bachelor machine,” but he never became a steady machine-like maker of fine art, as did many of his heirs. He did not place kitschy consumer items on a laminated shelf and claim to criticize consumerism. He did not paint the words “blah blah blah” in a range of buttery, pastel colors.

For the most part, the hierarchical art world, in love with expensive production techniques and backstories about buying gnarly tarps from food trucks in Mexico, does not take drawing seriously. It’s like poetry: why would you care about something that anybody can seemingly do reasonably well?

Van Buren’s drawings are modest and insubstantial, and the art world might see that as a problem. What is a drawing for, anyway?

Richard Van Buren, “Untitled” (2020), ink on paper, 11×14 inches

In 1966, after his retrospective at the Jewish Museum, Philip Guston stopped painting and only drew. He had hit an impasse in his painting and did not know what to do next. Would he keep making abstractions — which no longer brought him any joy — or would he do something else? For nearly two years, he pursued a mismatched body of work: what he called “pure’ drawings on the one hand, and depictions of ordinary things, such as books, puffs of smoke, cars, hands, or clouds, on the other. In both groups of drawings Guston used only line.

While much attention has been paid to this crucial period in Guston’s career, when he moved from abstraction to cartoony figuration, I don’t think his devotion to drawing has ever been seen in the right context. Drawing was a record of Guston’s thinking: it is what carried him from one place to another, not a conceptual idea but a mark on a page. Against the background of formal theory, in which a persistent belief in progress called for making the “right” kind of art, Guston did everything wrong.

The “death of the author” is not a large enough idea to accept drawing as part of an artist’s daily practice. If you champion Andy Warhol and the triumph of mechanical reproduction, and believe that everyone must join this club because there is no other, you cannot also champion Philip Guston and drawing. I do not believe that critics, who have vigorously upheld the death of painting, as if it were a fait accompli, have ever written in-depth about Guston.

Are the thoughts made manifest (or, to put it another way, exposed) in an artist’s drawing too insignificant to be taken seriously? Are we to look only at the drawings of geniuses such as Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns, while ignoring nearly everyone else’s graphic explorations?

Do we look at art because we want to bask in the presence of creative brilliance? Is it to be entertained? Or are there other reasons, such as self-reflection? What is all this excitement about anyway?

Richard Van Buren, “Untitled” (2020), ink on paper, 11×14 inches

Paul Klee famously wrote: “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” Perhaps, in this time of self-isolation and social distancing — behavior that is familiar to a lot of writers I know — the art world should consider celebrating artists who take a line for a walk without leaving their room — who don’t require expensive materials or run up high production costs?

Perhaps we should begin honoring artists who take a line for a walk rather than continuing to heap praise on the dependable producers of their brand, the latest heirs to the Henry Ford aesthetic of dependability.

Isn’t it time we consider artists who, using humble materials such as graphite, pen and ink, or crayon, and whose work doesn’t leave a giant carbon footprint when it is made and, later, shipped from one art fair to another?

Lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” come to mind:

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men.  Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Perhaps it is time we stopped looking at what passes for the new and begin looking at drawings — and what might be found there. Perhaps that is where we might find the news, instead of the latest selfie destination, whose impeccably shiny surface tries to tell us that all is well with the world.

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