By Carl Belz
Invented Symbols by Alex Katz. Charta/Colby College Museum of Art, 2012.
Bad Boy: My Life On And Off The Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown, 2012.
How do we currently write current art’s history? How, given its elastic chronology and ever-widening geographic reach, its self-consciously elusive look, the multiple urges and identities and media it comprises? How, in the absence of a canon of artists around whom a history might be structured, its sources and development traced, its context established, its achievements described? How, in the face of its censure on quality distinctions, its scapegoating of formalism, its dismissal of originality and artistic intent? How, in other words, do we write art’s history within the broader context of postmodernism’s prevailing hegemony?
Our unwieldy culture and its academic strictures increasingly nudge us to write the history of current art not from the outside in but from the inside out, personally and informally, more often than not via the autobiography and the memoir, genres rooted in direct experience that is unique to the individual writer. In doing so, our voices may be unauthorized by institutional structures, but likewise are they unfettered by those structures and the conventions they embody. In the publications considered here those voices richly inform our understanding not of any classroom theory about art’s making but of its day-to-day studio practice – the actual source material upon which any history of painting during the second half of the 20th Century in New York City must ultimately be based.
|Alex Katz, Ted Berrigan, 1967, oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches (photo courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York).|
|Eric Fischl, Sleepwalker, 1979, oil on canvas, 69 x 105 inches.|
Observations about art making and the art world anchor both of these autobiographies, though in neither are they presented in equal measure. For Alex Katz the art world is effectively a community identified not first of all by dealers and critics and collectors but by fellow artists working in genres ranging from painting and poetry to music and dance. While he’s circulated widely in that world – and enjoyed wide appreciation within it – art itself is what matters most in the story he offers here. Art as embodied in the modernist tradition, art as art, self-aware and self-defining, art that grasps experience in moments of an ongoing present, art that’s autonomous and impersonal, its existence justified simply by its being before us. In particular, what Katz was already after in his studio in the 1950s was not to tell stories or express himself but to be “an image-maker,” to craft large-scale realist pictures that memorably grasped the look of experience in the here and now, pictures that were clear and sharp, “that made sense as art and as decoration” and would be “strong enough to hang in Times Square.” He got that opportunity in 1977 when he was asked to design a billboard displaying a frieze of women’s heads, each 20 feet high, that was executed from his drawings by a sign painter. “One person recognized his ex-wife in the billboard from a plane circling over New York, waiting to land. We all thought that was pretty sensational...It was one of the great experiences of my life.”
|Alex Katz Times Square Mural, 1977.|
|Eric Fischl, Bad Boy, 1981, oil on canvas, 66 x 96 inches.|
The new art history that emerged during the 1970s and 80s aimed to correct those shortcomings by focusing not on the formal concerns of individual artworks but on a more inclusive picture of the art making process, on the times and places where particular artworks were made, on the social and political and economic conditions that prevailed then and there, on the media arts that were then popular, and on the backgrounds and lifestyles and personal relationships of the artists who made them – that is, on the contexts in which the artworks were created and exhibited and collected. No longer confined to a timeless Olympian status, the artworks became embedded in the fabric of everyday culture, which was just where Pop Art had positioned them in the process of blurring distinctions between high and low art during the 1960s. And thus, at its best, did the new art history likewise democratize art and make it more accessible. What came to undermine its effectiveness in doing so, however, was the tendency to equate context with content, as if referencing a context – a family relationship, a course taken in art school, a love affair – wouldn’t just inform the meaning of an artwork but could actually account for it. The quest for accessibility brought art making and artworks closer to our grasp, but it also risked reducing them, leaving us with no appreciation about how hard artists work in order to make art making look easy, and at the same time allowing art objects themselves to seem merely like ordinary, day-to-day things.
Their differences in emphasizing art making and/or the art world notwithstanding, neither Alex Katz nor Eric Fischl possesses a reductive vision of his enterprise. Katz no more engages in solving academic formal problems than Fischl glosses his figures’ psychic identities. On the contrary, the evidence of their respective narratives suggests that each artist conceives of art as capacious and embracing, its practice bountiful in yielding objects that are unique in being identified with meaning. Which makes me think that our concerns about the inadequacies of modernism and postmodernism, about the discourse then and the discourse now, may perhaps say more about those of us who wield the quills than those of us who wield the brushes, more about ourselves than about the artists who make the art in which we currently find insight and delectation – makes me think maybe we should attend a little more closely to their visual and verbal voices when we write their current history.