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What does it mean when you hook up your work to that of a late modernist giant working in a reductive vein — Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, or Donald Judd, for example — like a caboose? I am not talking about engaging directly with another artist’s work or ideas, but of perpetuating a look or, in the case of Wade Guyton, the various monochromatic, striped and geometric surfaces we associate with Minimalism. Guyton’s mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Wade Guyton OS, October 4, 2012–January 13, 2013) suggested that if you know how to efficiently package and produce that look, success may well come your way, that you too can be a caboose that makes a difference. In other words, you become a high-end art director in the guise of a forward-thinking conceptual artist.
For all the praise circling like an irremovable halo above Guyton and his use of an Epson inkjet printer to make his paintings (further complemented by the self-satisfaction of institutional apparatchiks relishing the seamless fit between his lack of creativity and their academic narrative — the one that concludes with the death of painting and all the other attendant deaths — the elephant still in the middle of the room is the way the paintings look.
What they look like are large facsimiles of Minimalism but without the expenditure of labor that went into the real thing. Efficient artistic production with just the right conceptual twist, it seems, is nothing to sneeze at. Guyton and his studio assistants might tug the folded canvas through the printer, but that is hardly the same as an individual making a painting or, for that matter, a drawing.
Their labor is proficient manufacture under the sign of art, which is not the same as Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional author, Pierre Menard, “recreating” Don Quixote word-for-word. Guyton’s paintings are the aesthetic equivalent of the nearly perfect copies of Louis Vuitton bags that you can buy on Manhattan street corners. They don’t cost as much as the original, and they look pretty good.
One reason I am thinking of Guyton and his myriad examples of well-produced scruffiness is because, in the eyes of tastemakers, the creation of imperfect and, in some cases, ironic variations of the artistic canon is a sanctioned way of dealing with what Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence.” The post-Bloom mantra seems to be this: Don’t take on, address or engage, but appropriate, copy and lampoon. If wielded with the right amount of panache, this strategy can significantly cut down the wait time between a young artist and art world success.
We are well past Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning and their years of struggle, with no intention of looking back. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because the model of the suffering artist is hackneyed and tiresome, a B-movie version of bohemian life. It is the academically approved replacement model that I have a serious problem with, which smugly dismisses anything that seeks to delve beyond the surface. Appearance, it seems, has now become the art world’s highest goal, a shift in aesthetics more in keeping with the aesthetics of Hollywood and fashion designers. Stonewashed, artily torn jeans bought off the right shiny rack are infinitely preferable to ones that have gotten that way through actual use.
Along with the efficiency, and institutional legitimacy, of acting in the proper Warholian manner, another reason why Guyton and others have chosen to appropriate Minimalism’s look is because it is the apotheosis of art-about-art, the period when subjectivity, content, meaning and all the other messy contingencies were emptied out of painting, along with space. As Stella famously said, “What you see is what you see.” And Warhol concurred when he stated, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
There is something liberating about not having to deal with problematic and chaotic issues such as the personal. For those appropriating Minimalism’s appearance, the goal is to make a good-looking product that reaffirms the death of painting, the death of the author and the death of originality without coming right out and saying it. If you are well bred enough, it seems that you can have your cake and eat it too. After all, we have not yet reached the point in the narrative that proclaims the death of the art director.
Of course, it helps that Minimalism is the ubiquitous postwar look, found in architecture and design. It is easier for Guyton and others to engage with a reproducible look associated with the timelessness of the present era than to grapple with a particular thing, an object with a history, which speaks too much of the material world and time’s incursions. If the imperfect copy or ironic shout-out helps verify the academic view dismissing the author and originality, it also reinforces the belief that art is all about style, the look of the thing. And, if style is the culmination of an artist’s work, then Guyton’s work is certainly accomplished. It looks serious. The colors might even be considered somber, neutral and non-expressive. Can we ask for more? Apparently not.
I was reminded of the success of Guyton’s postmodern strategy when I saw Jacob Kassay’s exhibition, IJK at 303 Gallery (November 1–December 20, 2013) Sarah Morris’s solo, titled Academia Militar, at Petzel (November 14–December 21, 2013). Kassay and Morris, like Guyton, are caboose artists who have hitched their fussy, smart-looking work to pre-ordained giants of art history. What all three artists share is good taste; they embrace what they have interpreted as brand-name formulas (or signature gestures) developed by major artists.
Kassay’s exhibition consisted of white and pale gray acrylic paintings on oddly shaped canvases and wall sculptures made from solid wedges of glass “to be inserted into library books,” as I learned from the press release. The sculptures make no impression whatsoever, while the paintings, in their retrofitting of the work of Ryman and Richard Tuttle for ironic purposes, suggest the impossibility of being serious about anything.
In her exhibition, which includes paintings on canvas, ink and gouache on movie posters and a film, Morris has co-opted Stella, Kelly and Victor Vasarely by adding just the right touch of graphic design to her brightly colored, large-sized, McMansion-friendly, geometric paintings. In contrast to Kassay’s sophomoric ironies, Morris claims to make work about power relationships, which suggests a passing familiarity with the writings of Michel Foucault.
For Kassay and Morris, the goal is to adapt and repurpose a particular 1960s-70s brand-name look in a way that demonstrates the conceptual brilliance (or light bulb moment) of their ideas, as well as ensure that the making of the piece, however flawless and uptight, smoothly illustrates the deep thinking that went into it.
Kassay’s punctiliously engineered canvases owe everything to the seemingly casual, eccentrically shaped painted wood reliefs that Richard Tuttle began making in the mid-1960s. However, nothing Kassay does is casual. Rather, the slightly curved and irregular stretchers are calculated to appear casual, which conveys either a lack of imagination or a fear of it. According to the press release, Kassay used “residual textiles from paintings long lost, sold or otherwise disappeared.” While the last word is meant, I suppose, to add poignancy to the work, there is something obscenely smug about the allusion to the forced disappearance of thousands of people during Argentina’s Dirty War.
Kassay’s employment of atomized white and gray paint sprayed onto the shaped surface, with the artist’s name in large letters along the bottom and stenciled titles running along the side — which are all appropriated from Ryman — emphasizes the painting as an object, while titles such as “Inner Vendor” and “Bogus Torrent” (both 2013) are diluted versions of Ed Ruscha’s deadpan wordplays. Instead of coming across as ironic, which was most likely the artist’s intention, the combination is as dull and deadly as the 2011 children’s film Mars Needs Moms.
The painter and filmmaker Sarah Morris has long anchored her work in urban megalopolises, or what the writer William Gibson would designate as “The Sprawl”: Beijing, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and, in her current exhibition, Rio de Janierio. According to the gallery’s press release, the exhibition’s title, Academia Militar, is the name of the military academy “located at the base of the infamous and cinematic Sugarloaf.” The press release goes on to state, “the title encapsulates the contradictory political history of Brazil and its system of power which is currently going through a moment of rapid development and change.” The viewer, therefore, had better get wise to being in the presence of paintings with political and social implications. The real kicker, however, is the last line before the list of Morris’s numerous “international solo exhibitions”: “Her paintings streamline and create a new language of place and politics.”
If I take the press release as representative of Morris’s thinking, then this is the generic language I hear speaking in her big, bright, graphic abstractions, would look tailor-made for corporate lobbies and spacious museum galleries. The hard, high-contrast palette of violets, reds, greens, blacks and grays are meant to evoke urban cacophony, while the circles and petal shapes convey Rio’s erotic character and tropical climate. We are intended, it would seem, to decode these rather obvious signs, as if somehow we will become enlightened in the process. If there is something at all monstrous about Rio, it didn’t make it into Morris’s paintings.
The closest Morris comes to complexity is in “Cosan (Rio)” (2013), which takes its title from Brazil’s biggest producer of ethanol and sugar. It is a large square painting divided into a grid of colored squares (turquoise greens, whites, grays, blues, blacks, and yellows), some of which have been divided diagonally into triangles. Thick diagonal black lines descend from the upper left to the lower right, dividing the composition into slated sections, and cause the composition to flip between a flat surface and a three-dimensional space, a corporate building façade and the rows of cubicles crammed inside it. As a comment on sameness and repression it seems a tad pat.
Like Kassay, Morris seems to be taking her cues from the well-known Hollywood Formula of making sequels to stories the audience already knows and loves — in this case, Minimalism. As a twist, she mixes in a couple of disparate genres: Op art, commercial design, including Bossa Nova album covers, and Univision’s corporate logo. If her most recent line of large, glossy products were a movie, it would be the 2011’s Cowboys versus Aliens — body snatching ones, of course.
While a number of writers have advanced the view that Morris’s paintings are a critique of late capitalism, I think this claim must be meant ironically, since only a successful late capitalist would have rooms big enough to hold her paintings, one of which measures 84.25 x 169.49 inches. If anything, Morris’s grids of brightly colored circles, with their allusions to lunar cycles, commercial packaging, corporate logos and Op Art, resemble a digitally processed fusion of high modernist vocabulary and graphic design, resulting in a clearly defined diagrammatic image that studio assistants can handily fill in with high-gloss household paint.
With their precisely measured colored lines separating distinct areas of glossy, unmodulated color, Morris’ paintings follow the coloring book aesthetic: be sure the color stays between the lines. There are unexpected color shifts that briefly hold your attention, but little else to engage your thinking. Once again, we are delivered to the land where appearances are all. The grit of Rio de Janierio is nowhere to be found. Instead, Morris has translated the pomp and circumstance we might associate with military academies and their penchant for parades and bright medals into large, beautiful, empty paintings with just enough variation to save them from monotony — just what the interior decorator ordered.
Jacob Kassay: IJK continues at 303 Gallery (507 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 20.
Sarah Morris: Academia Militar continues at Petzel Gallery (456 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21.