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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thomas Wolfe and The Painted Word

American author and journalist, Thomas Wolfe, is certainly one of the country’s best writers. Over the decades he’s penned works as diverse as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. He also wrote two extremely controversial histories regarding modern art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus To Our House (1981). Despite Wolfe’s conservatism, it’s hard to imagine the critique contained in his essays on art as coming from your average garden variety reactionary. Wolfe’s critical assessment of modern art, and his ridiculing those who defended its excesses, seems wholly prescient when viewed from today’s vantage point. If anything, the extremes in art lambasted by Wolfe have subsequently become worse as postmodernism ascended and took center stage.

In The Painted Word, Wolfe began his essay by recounting a revelatory experience he had on April 28, 1974, while reading an art review by Hilton Kramer for the New York Times. Kramer, a leading proponent of abstract art, had written: "Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory" - a statement that provoked Wolfe to write:

"All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism.

All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer - waiting, waiting, forever waiting for… it… for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there - waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma.

All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well - how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not 'seeing is believing,' you ninny, but 'believing is seeing,' for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text."

And what was the "text" he spoke of? Wolfe asserted that the critics, museum directors, academics, and other "art experts" of the day, had become more important than the artists. These art authorities began operating like the clergy, but their religious duties were to the church of modern art. The proclamations of these high priests - i.e., figuration, narration, and realism in art was archaic and passé - became a divine text and considered the sacred word. No one dared to question the word for fear of being thought heretical. Metaphorically, the painted word began to appear in the work of artists devoted to the new orthodoxy (hence the title of the essay). Wolfe foretold our current predicament when he wrote:

"Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word. They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: 'That’s how it was then!' - as they describe how, on the one hand, the scientists of the mid-twentieth century proceeded by building upon the discoveries of their predecessors and thereby lit up the sky… while the artists proceeded by averting their eyes from whatever their predecessors, from da Vinci on, had discovered, shrinking from it, terrified, or disintegrating it with the universal solvent of the Word.

The more industrious scholars will derive considerable pleasure from describing how the art-history professors and journalists of the period 1945-75, along with so many students, intellectuals, and art tourists of every sort, actually struggled to see the paintings directly, in the old pre-World War II way, like Plato’s cave dwellers watching the shadows, without knowing what had projected them, which was the Word.What happy hours await them all! With what sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement they will look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"

[ Read more excerpts from Thomas Wolfe’s The Painted Word, or purchase the entire book from ]

Friday, September 22, 2006

The California Modernist Portrait

L.A.'s wonderful Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery's current exhibit is titled, The California Modernist Portrait, a must see show of California Modernist paintings and sculptures from the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. The gallery has some dazzling paintings on display that will give you an idea of the technical and emotional power of the artists from that particular period. The gallery asks that their web graphics not be reproduced without written permission, a request we respect, so we are writing this brief report sans graphics because we couldn’t wait to share our enthusiasm about this gallery, its collection, and its current exhibit. You’ll have to visit the Helfen website to take in the visual splendors of the exhibit.

The LA Stuckist/Remodernist circle wants to categorically state our belief, that in order to go forward, we must have a firm understanding and appreciation for those artists who preceded us, and for Angelinos there's no finer chance to become familiar with California Modernism than the current exhibit at the Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery. As LA painters, we have an acute sense of history about our city, a sense that has been sharpened by the works on view at the Helfen. Our desire to reinvigorate the Modernist project - i.e. "Remodernism", has been strengthened in knowing that we have a strong foundation for our efforts - the remarkable painters from California’s not so distant past whose works possessed incredible beauty, narrative power, and a deep humanism.

The California Modernist Portrait exhibit should make viewers aware of the losses suffered by art over the last few decades, as figuration was buried and all but forgotten by a new art elite enamored of abstraction, minimalism, and conceptualism. But the works on display at the Helfen are also exciting examples of what could be done with figuration today, if only those artists with skill and vision would put their minds to it. We don’t wish to replicate the past, but we gladly take the baton passed to us by our forerunners, with the full intention of creating a new school of modern painting worthy of our predecessors and fit for the 21st Century.

If you live anywhere near Los Angeles, don’t miss The California Modernist Portrait, which runs until November 11th, 2006. The Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery is located at, 9200 West Olympic Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Phone: (310) 273-8838. Visit their website, at:

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Words of Wisdom

"It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism." - Al Gore

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Bruce Nauman: Emperor without Clothes

The LA Stuckist group revels in the practice of toppling art world sacred cows. But we don’t just lash out at our targets for the sheer pleasure of it all - no, there is a method to our madness, and at any rate, we’ll leave it to the postmodernists to practice a clichéd two-bit nihilism… after all, they’re so much better at it. For all the fun we’ve been having hurling our spears at the elite art establishment, we’ve yet to drive them from their thrones, but we’re not worried… Rome didn’t fall in a day.

While plotting our next move, which is certain to cause the downfall of the entire postmodern social order in art, a certain plump sacred cow came to mind, the very King of postmodernist minimalism - Bruce Nauman. Hailed by critics, museums and academia as one of the most significant artists living today, Nauman is credited with having influenced legions of conceptual artists through his work in film, sound, video, sculpture and neon. But Nauman and his ilk are not antithetical to the established order, they are the established order, and if there was any doubt about that it should have been erased when Nauman was given the Golden Lion award at the 1999 Venice Biennale. We can’t think of a larger art world sacred cow in need of toppling.

[ Genius at work. Self-Portrait as a Fountain. Bruce Nauman 1966. Photograph. ]

In 1966 Nauman had his debut show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. After being snatched up by New York art dealer Leo Castelli in 1968, Nauman produced an eight minute long movie that was an exercise in tedium but a benchmark for a career based upon the same. Black Balls, a silent black and white film made in 1969, gave spectators the dubious pleasure of watching a close up view of Nauman applying black makeup to his testicles. One of his better known video installations was titled, Clown Torture, a work from 1987 that consisted of separate stacked video screens showing films of a clown sitting on a public toilet, a clown balancing goldfish bowls, a clown reciting a nonsensical story, and a clown repetitively screaming "No, no, no, nonono!"

[ Clown Torture. Video by Bruce Nauman 1987. No, no, no, nonono! ]

World Peace was Nauman's 1996 video installation consisting of five separate video players or projectors displaying four women and one man, each prattling separately, endlessly, and inanely about world peace. Their argumentative tone and inability to truly dialog with one another, is proof positive, from the apolitical postmodernist view - that world peace is impossible. The work effectively strips political ideas from the question and reduces the problem to one of so-called "human nature".

Reviewing Nauman's World Peace video installation at New York's Sperone Westwater Gallery, art history professor Donald Kuspit wrote: "Nauman's art has long ridiculed the obvious, just as Duchamp once used the obvious to ridicule art: ridicule reduces whatever it touches to rhetoric, finally rendering it meaningless. In the art world, such facile nihilism passes for critical profundity, indeed philosophical brilliance, when, in fact it is simply farce -- a kind of burlesque of an easy target, indeed, a pushover." Kuspit went on to write that Nauman's art, "however much it seems to be at war with popular ideas, is a product of a culture industry. If not as popular as the Country Western music industry, the high art culture demands the same slick look. Indeed, Nauman's irony has become as slick as his technology."

Another art critic who weighed in on Nauman was Robert Hughes, who in 1995 wrote a review for TIME magazine on the artist’s then running retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. In the review, titled Being A Nuisance, Hughes seemed conflicted regarding the legacy of Nauman, calling his art "deliberately off-putting", and "so dumb that you can’t guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned." Hughes referred to much of Nauman’s works as "one-liner art, no matter what windy claims surround them." But in surveying all of the jarring and disconcerting artifacts Nauman has left in his wake over the years, Hughes recognized Nauman was playing a new role - artist as nuisance. And there lies the genius of this artist, according to Hughes, who ended up proclaiming Nauman "the most influential American Artist of his generation."

That assertion was bad enough, but Hughes, who should know better, tossed out even more drivel when he said, "The artist as hero is long gone from American culture, and the artist as social critic is ineffective." But who or what makes that so - if the claims are true at all? While it’s correct to say Nauman is neither heroic nor an effective social critic, it’s ill-advised to judge every other artist using the same "lowered bar" standards applied to Nauman. If social criticism in art is "ineffective", are we then to join the postmodernist babblers like Nauman who have nothing to say?

Regarding the supposed death of the artist as hero, just because exemplary artists are ignored by a money driven, media mad society - it doesn’t follow that such champions in fact do not exist. That artists persevere and carry on under present circumstances makes them all the more heroic. Goodness knows heroes frequently have feet of clay, and more often than not have been little more than iconic figures generated to manipulate the public. But there is a stark difference between manufactured and genuine heroes. Nevertheless - how did the artist fall from grace? Have we actually moved to a time when the artist can only aspire to be a nuisance? As it appears to us, bleak days call for laudable thought and action - and the artist just might be among the last American heroes.