Thursday, November 27, 2014

Rewriting of Art History, Again

Robert Boyd

Many rock nerds (such as myself) can easily construct an alternate history of rock music, one that foregrounds hitless acts like the Velvet Underground, Love, Big Star and the Ramones, and erases many of the bands you are likely to hear on a classic rock station (AC/DC, Styx, Journey, Dire Straits, etc.). Partly that's because Big Star (for example) is utterly great and Journey (for example) is utterly dreadful. (And if you disagree, well, that's just your opinion, man!) But it's also because we rock nerds tend to excessively value discovering something for ourselves that wasn't easy to find--bands that were never played on the radio, for example. Classic rock, for us, was a metanarrative imposed by a power structure (as described in part by such books as Hit Men--see, we rock nerds are such nerds that were read books about rock music) that seemed arbitrary and unfair. There is a degree of ressentiment here--that can't be denied. But the idea that a metanarrative or a "grand narrative" is an inescapable (and oppressive) system is an idea that has been the source of many alternate histories and systems--including the rock nerds' alternative history of rock.

Dan Nadel's exhibit, What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, collecting together art by H.C. Westermann, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Ken Price, Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Jim Drain, William Copley, Elizabeth Murray, Jack Kirby, Gary Panter and many more, is an equivalent to the rock nerds' challenge to the accepted history of rock. The grand narrative Nadel is challenging is the canonical history of art from the 60s through the 90s. You might think of this history as appropriation and assemblage paralleled by minimalism, post-minimalism transitioning to conceptualism, installation and performance, heavily undergirded by French theory as filtered through Artforum and October. Establishing a counterhistory to that seems like a worthwhile thing to do, right?

Except that in real life, it's really hard to come up with a cohesive history of art during that period. The idea that there actually is a metanarrative to be in opposition to seems suspect, especially in 2014. This is because the period covered in this exhibit was one in which in which Modernism went off the rails and a thousand flowers bloomed. Modernism was a real metanarrative that was slain (or at least crippled) by Post-Modernism, which is to say by the myriad challenges from many directions to its seeming hegemony. Art history was reclaimed and reframed as women, members of racial minorities, formerly colonized people, and LGBT people asked why art history and Modernism in particular seemed so white, so European/North American and so male? Specifically they were asking if the ideological underpinnings of Modernism, which hitherto had seemed so neutral and formal, masked hidden sexist and racist tendencies.

Compared to issues like those, the ones addressed by Nadel's exhibit seem far less consequential. And I hate the defensive title, What Nerve! The desire to showcase the work of overlooked or undervalued artists is a laudable one, but this title suggests that there was an elite NYC cabal looking down their noses at these provincial artists, saying "How dare they do this?" and holding them back. When an exhibit includes work by Mike Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, Ken Price and Peter Saul, this is a questionable premise.

Jim Falconer, Morbid Sunshine by a Miner Artist, 1966, oil on canvas, 78 x 78 1/4. Falconer was a member of the Hairy Who.

Nadel in his introduction writes, "With the recognition of modernism as the dominant art mode and the critical emphasis on theory, artists who were unable or unwilling to adopt to crisp rationales found themselves at loose ends." I think this can be reasonably said in regard to, say, the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago artists whose manic figurative work is a major part of the show, but is it true of Forcefield, the late 90s collective of RISD art students? They may have been rebellious, but not against Modernism, which was a corpse by the time they became active.

Forcefield (Jim Drain, Mat Brinkman, Ara Peterson and Leif Goldberg), various costumes and objects, 200-2002

Judith Tannenbaum, in her essay for the catalog "Outside the Looking Glass," writes more directly: "By bringing [the artists in What Nerve!] together, we hope to right this wrong, and to flesh out a history of representational art that has largely been submerged by the canon of Minimal and Conceptual art to which it runs parallel in the second half of the twentieth century." One can certainly say that these artists haven't been given their due (although with Mike Kelley and Elizabeth Murray, that is patently untrue), and that alone is a good reason to put them in an exhibit. And to say that they represent a certain tendency running through the past few decades is reasonable. But to posit an alternative art history that exists against the accepted narrative is an over-reach. For one thing, it ignores many figurative artists who were very successful, respected, etc., from the 60s forward. For example, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, Richard Lindner, Mel Ramos, John Wesley, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, Wayne Theibaud, Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Ida Applebroog, Jean-Michell Basquiat, Eric Fischl, Leon Golub, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Robert Colescott, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Raymond Pettibon and Kiki Smith. Tannenbaum at least makes a nod to them--and to the general pluralism of art starting in the 60s (undermining her own argument about the "canon"). (Ironically, when I saw What Nerve! at RISD, there was a small but choice exhibit called She: Picturing women at the turn of the 21st century up at Brown University's David Winton Bell Gallery, featuring figurative art by Glenn Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Yayoi Kusama, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, Lisa Yuskavage and others.)

Jack Kirby, Tribes Trilogy 3, 1976, ink and Dr. Martin's dyes on board, 15 x 20 inches

So if forming a counternarrative to canonical art history isn't a reasonable organizing principle for this show, what is? The work in it appears to have a family relationship, after all. The obvious connection is a kind of cartoon figuration. This is a little more specific than figuration generally. There are elements of caricature in much of the work. There is a good deal of humor. There are direct references to comic strips, comic books, magazine cartoons and animated cartoons. And many of the included artists--Mat Brinkman (of Forcefield), Gary Panter and of course, Jack Kirby--have significant bodies of comics art under their belts. Kirby, of course, is known primarily as a comics artist--Nadel includes in this show nearly all of his "wall art." I wish they had made this--cartoon figuration--the explicit theme of the show. It would have been a smaller statement than the counternarrative to art history idea, but one much more defensible and, to me, more interesting.

The other organizing principal could be "the obsessions of Dan Nadel." Nadel is an editor, publisher and curator. I first became aware of him in 2000 or so when I saw the first issue of his beautiful squarebound journal The Ganzfeld. The Ganzfeld dealt with comics in a new way. It looked at the intersection of comics and art. And within its pages were articles and features on many of the people in this exhibit--Peter Saul, the Hairy Who, Gary Panter, members of Forcefield and maybe some I'm missing. Nadel spun this magazine into a publishing concern, PictureBox (2000 to 2014), which published many art catalogs and comics featuring the artists in this show, including Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters 1973-1977 and Gary Panter, a massive two volume retrospective in book form. As a curator, he has put together shows by Jack Kirby and Hairy Who member Karl Wirsum. And he edited two books of overlooked and underappreciated comics--a counternarrative to the accepted history of comics, if you will-- called Art in Time and Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. What Nerve! brings together a lot of artists who have long been objects of fascination for Nadel as well as the idea of an alternate to the canon.

Whether you see this show as dealing with cartoon figuration or if you see it as a gathering of several of Nadel's artistic obsessions, the stated thesis in the catalog doesn't really hold water. Does the mean this is a bad exhibit? No, it just means that you should take its claims, and some of the claims made for it (for instance in the review "Here Is Your Nasty, Glorious, Freewheeling Alternative History Of American Art" by Priscilla Frank), with a grain of salt. Concentrate instead on the art itself. And to be fair, the big claims are only a small part of the scholarship in the catalog--mostly the essays deal with the specific artists and collectives and their work. They are, for the most part, informative, useful and entertaining.

Peter Saul, Dogpatch, 1961, crayon and collage on paper

It was pure pleasure to see early work by Peter Saul. Dogpatch is quite early, before his style tightened up. You can see some expressionist brushstrokes, which would mostly disappear from his painting later. It reminds me a bit of Richard Diebenkorn and Larry Rivers.

Peter Saul, Man in Electric Chair, 1966, styrofoam coated with plastic and enamel, 55 x 24 x 42 inches.

Saul's large sculpture, Man in Electric Chair is like a living underground comix image, but the textures and patterns in the paint feel ahead of their time. This is the kind of artwork I think of when I use the phrase "cartoon figuration." Whether Saul was consciously influenced by cartoons or comics, it's impossible to see Man in Electric Chair without thinking about them.

Kenneth Price, Red, 1961, ceramic, paint, wood, 14 7/8 x 17 x 16 3/16

Saul was lumped in with several other artists, including Kenneth Price, in a group called the Funk artists. Unlike the Hairy Who, Destroy All Monsters and Forcefield, these artists didn't call themselves Funk artists. It was the coinage of curator Peter Selz who showed a group of Bay Area artists in a show of the same name at the UC Berkeley museum in 1967. The catalog essay by Nicole Rudick relates the amusing history of the term, including the rejection of it by many of the artists to whom Selz applied it.

But is easy to see a visual relationship between the works. Even though Kenneth Price was never a figurative artist (which begs the question of why he's in the show except one never needs an excuse to include Kenneth Price in an art show), his curvy, colorful ceramics have a cartoony presence that relates them to other "funk" artists like Robert Hudson and Peter Saul.

Robert Arneson, Typewriter, 1965, earthenware with glaze, paint, 6 1/8 x 11 3/8 x 12 1/2 inches

One of the great things about seeing What Nerve! is that I got to see many works I had only seen in photos before, like Typewriter by Robert Arneson. At a time when his peers (including Ken Price) were making work that was sleek and minimal, Arneson was mining a deliberately grungy aesthetic. In a way, he is close stylistically to assemblagists like Wallace Berman, George Herms and Ed Kienholz despite his use of ceramics.

Jim Nutt, Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good poster, 1968, offset lithograph, 21 1/4 x 16 5/8 inches

The Hairy Who were more self-directed and self-defined. Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer and Art Green had been classmates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They proposed a show to Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center, and he suggested that they add Karl Wirsum to the line up because Wirsum's work seemed similar to what they were doing. It turned out to be a perfect fit--the six artists worked closely together and forged a collective identity for a few years. Not that the work was collective--for the most part, they did solo work. But some aspects were collaborative--the comic-book-style catalogs they produced and the design of the shows.

Jim Nutt, Wow, 1968, acrylic on plexiglass, 30 x 25 inches

I have a special affection for the Hairy Who. When I was an undergrad in the early 80s taking an "art since the 1940s" art history class, the professor showed a single slide of Jim Nutt's work one day as representative of what was happening in Chicago. (I think he may have also showed Roger Brown and Ed Paschke.) It immediately grabbed me, and I wrote my paper for the class on the group, scrounging up information from old art magazines. In the early 80s when I wrote that paper they were still underrated, but since that time they have been rediscovered and reevaluated. Nutt always had success as a painter, but recently we've seen major gallery exhibits in New York for Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson, as well as museum shows. Still it's nice to see some of the art from the original group of shows gathered together, as well as the ephemera (posters, comics) that accompanied the original Hairy Who exhibits.

Karl Wirsum, Baseball Girl, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 39 x 31 inches

When I wrote that paper back in the early 80s, I fell in love with the above image (reproduced quite small in the glossy pages of a mid-sixties art magazine) by Karl Wirsum. Unlike his later work, in which human figures become quite monstrous, Baseball Girl is an appealing and erotic image.

Karl Wirsum, Gilateen, 1968, oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches

More typical of where Wirsum's art would go is Gilateen from 1968. The way Wirsum outlines flat areas of color may remind viewers of comic books, but the images themselves seem completely original. They have more the idea of a cartoon rather than a specific reference to a comics or cartoon image. And they anticipate what cartoonists from the 80s to the present would be doing. Wirsum was an artist who fell through the cracks for a while before being rediscovered, but it's easy to see why his work was dismissed (wrongly, I might add!). It seemed wacky and low brow and adolescent and just not serious. I think the lack of apparent seriousness was what kept many of these artists from getting their due. Maybe 60s and 70s-era critics like Michael Fried or Rosalind Krauss have exceptional senses of humor in private, but their public critical posture was dead serious. But as we've seen (and will continue to see), much of the art in What Nerve! was meant to be funny. And "funny" was hard for certain important critics to process.

Art Green, Double Exposure, 1969, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches.

In retrospect, much of the work of the Hairy Who appears dated. There is something inherently "60s" about Art Green's work, particularly paintings like Double Exposure. But the psychedelic colors and juxtapositions shouldn't prevent us from enjoying it today any more than they do with work by, say, James Rosenquist, whose work Green reminds me of.

Gladys Nilsson, Phantom Plus, 1966, watercolor on paper, 21 5/8 x 14 1/2.

Gladys Nilsson's soft forms remind me of any number of somewhat psychedelic 60s-era cartoons, ranging from Tom Wilson's Ziggy or the Heinz Edelmann-designed movie, Yellow Submarine. Her choice of watercolor is unusual for its time and lends her work a somewhat whimsical air. (Her more recent work, some of which is on view through December 6 at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York, has more sharp edges.)

H.C. Westermann, See America First plate 8, 1968, 18 lithographs, 21 3/4 x 30 inches each.

The Hairy Who were from Chicago, which had a long tradition of figuration while New York artists and critics championed abstraction. New York tastemakers seemed disdainful of the Second City's art scene; Chicago said "so what?" and went its own way. What appeals to me about this local history is that there is a continuity--older artists influenced and taught younger artists. I think this kind of lineage can be found in any sufficiently large and robust local scene. What Nerve! featured not only the Hairy Who, but three other artists with roots in the Chicago scene, including H.C. Westermann (above). Westermann is best known for his three-dimensional works, but See America First, a cheeky series of satirical lithographs, is quite nice. It shows Westermann, a blue-collar war veteran, approaching the somewhat more genteel territory of Saul Steinberg.

Christina Ramberg, Probed Cinch, 1971, acrylic on masonite in painted artist's frame, 13 x 13 inches.

Christina Ramberg was one artist in the show with whom I was almost completely unfamiliar. The name was familiar--it is often mentioned when people write of Chicago artists of the 60s and 70s (along with Philip Hanson and Roger Brown). Like Hanson and Brown, it has an appealing combination of precision and mystery. In the three paintings included in the show, we see these women's bodies in somewhat old-fashioned lingerie but no faces (facelessness was also a feature of most of Brown's paintings). The viewer is pushed right up close to these bodies.

Elizabeth Murray, Truth, Justice and the Comics #1, 1990, oil on canvas on wood, 50 x 53 x 4 inches.

Elizabeth Murray was born in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute in the late fifties and early sixties. She seems to have picked up some of that town's attitude toward figuration and humor. She spent most of her career in New York, and that fact might account for her relative success compared to many of the Chicago artists. She got lumped in with the neo-expressionists in the late 70s and 80s, which was apt. But she avoided most of those painters' bombast and pretension. One thing she is well known for are her elaborate shaped canvases, such as Truth, Justice and the Comics #1 above. Her work always has a slightly grungy, hand-made physicality. Her work, like Philip Guston's, embodied a kind of expressionist approach to cartoon figuration. It recalled in its way the old comics of the 20s and 30s like Barney Google and the Bungle Family--comics that, to paraphrase Robert Crumb, smelled of boiled cabbage. Her own tough Chicago childhood (which included periods of homelessness) might have fed into that, but her work never feels morose. In any case, she doesn't qualify as overlooked artist like Christina Ramberg might--I just saw an enormous Elizabeth Murray hanging over the ticket table on the ground floor of MOMA two weeks ago.

Cary Loren, Jim Shaw as a Spaceman, God's Oasis, 1975/2011, photograph, 24 x 20 inches.

Destroy All Monsters was a band/commune in Ann Arbor in the mid-70s. It consisted of four members, Cary Loren, Niagara, Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley.  Kelley and Shaw left to study and CalArts and became very well-known contemporary artists. Indeed, Kelley is considered one of the key artists of his age.

The four of them did a lot of art while they lived together but perhaps more important is that they embodied their art in the way they lived. Their house, God's Oasis, was mostly a reflection of Jim Shaw's scuzzy collection of the lowest-brow pop culture possible.

Mike Kelley (foreground) and Jim Shaw in Shaw's bedroom at God's Oasis.

I was amused to come across the photo of Kelley in Shaw's bedroom standing by Shaw's comic spinner rack. You can see a copy of Katy Keene, a comic that featured paper dolls for its titular model protagonist, in the bottom left. The one time I met Mike Kelley was during the 90s at San Diego Comic-Con. He had just come from the auction, clutching his prize and grinning with pleasure. I asked him what he got, and he pulled out an original Bill Woggon Katy Keene paper doll page. In other words, the things that obsessed them as undergraduate weirdos continued to be an important part of their work as mature artists. For Kelley, it was abjection, as seen in his quasi-sexual installations and performances using well-used stuffed animals. It was also almost worshipful depictions of Kandor, the bottled city from Krypton in old Superman comics. For Shaw, it was his endless explorations of adolescence and cults. It all started here.

Mike Kelley, Political Cartoon (In the Clutches of Evil), 1976/2011, pigment print on paper, 32 x 45 3/4 inches

But that doesn't mean that the work done by these four artists in God's Oasis was all that good. Kelley's underground comix-influenced Political Cartoon, for example, looks like the work of an ambitious, snarky college student, but doesn't compare in power with Kelley's mature work.

Niagara, The Key, 1974, watercolor on paper, 17 x 14 inches.

The same is true of Niagara's drawings and watercolors, which was among the least interesting art in the show. The life they lead at God's Oasis and in the "band" Destroy All Monsters (which at the time existed to deliberately annoy its listener/victims by making godawful noise) was the real art--art as life. What we have left in this exhibit are relics of that life, but they are far less interesting than the personal accounts in the catalog by Cary Loren and Niagara. (After Kelley and Shaw headed west, Destroy All Monsters became more of a "real" rock band.)

Forcefield, Slice Print, 2001, silkscreen print

Forcefield was similar to Destroy All Monsters in that it was a collective, a band, and a group of people whose life was as much a work of art as was their music, graphic art and costumes. But compared to Destroy All Monsters, the relics of Forcefield's existence are much more interesting. Forcefield consisted of four members, Jim Drain, Ara Peterson, Mat Brinkman and Lief Goldberg. Drain, Brinkman and Goldberg lived with several other artists in Providence, Rhode Island, in a warehouse structure they called Fort Thunder. Fort Thunder was packed with stuff--even the high ceiling was hung with random garbage. The walls were all made of slapped-together plywood, and every inch was covered with drawings, graffiti, stickers and glued-objects. The artists who lived there had bands (in addition to Forcefield there was Lightning Bolt), put on shows for other bands, made costumes, had a silk-screen studio (Fort Thunder silkscreens are highly prized), produced comics, etc.

Nadel could have chosen any aspect of Fort Thunder to include in this show, but chose Forcefield, which was perhaps the most focused part of the sprawling activities associated with Fort Thunder. But what is ironic is that he includes this band/performance group in a show devoted to figurative art. Outside of their Forcefield work, Leif Goldberg and Mat Brinkman have done tons of figurative work in drawings, comics and animation. Drain and Peterson's non Forcefield work has been mostly abstract and installation-based. The only aspect of Forcefield that could be considered figurative (and this stretches the term) are the knit costumes they made.

Forcefield (Jim Drain, Mat Brinkman, Ara Peterson and Leif Goldberg), various costumes and objects, 200-2002

But even if calling them "figurative" stretches the definition of the word, so what? They're amazing. Initially the costumes were pieced together out of old afghans found in local thrift stores, but when Jim Drain joined, he started knitting them from scratch. (Knitting has remained a part of Drain's artistic practice.) The patterns and the way they cover the wearer's face give them an alien, slightly threatening appearance, but the fact that they're knit makes them simultaneously seem cozy and inviting. 

Jack Kirby, Dream Machine, 1970-1975, ink and watercolor on board, 18 x 52 inches.

In 2003, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston mounted a show called Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art. It was notable in that among 34 artists included in the show (which included Elizabeth Murray and Peter Saul), only one had actually produced comics. Thankfully, What Nerve! avoids this. Perhaps Nadel's most radical curatorial move is to include several works by Jack Kirby. Kirby wasn't a fine artist who dabbled with comics on the side. He was a lifelong comics practitioner who did a small number of stand-alone painted artworks. Nadel collects almost all of them. They each reflect Kirby's unique techno-psychedelia that characterizes some of his finest comic book work.

Jack Kirby, Dream Machine detail, 1970-1975, ink and watercolor on board, 18 x 52 inches.
This is the key to the exhibit in my view--the idea of cartoon figuration and its possibilities. Unlike much Pop Art which was holding a kind of mirror to pop culture (and comics and cartoons were a part of that), these artists were attempting to work within that vocabulary--and were willing to show that that vocabulary permits a wide variety of expression. Jack Kirby, working for hire in what was widely considered one of the cheapest, most low-brow forms of pop culture, came up with a highly personal form of expression.

It's not about "influence" (as in Splat Bang Pow!) or appropriation--it's ultimately about expression. That's what connects all the artists in What Nerve!, whether they practiced any sort of cartoon figuration or not. And despite the somewhat overblown claims made for the art here, the work here adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It's an interesting, unexpected show.

What Nerve! runs at the RISD through January 4, 2015.

Gary Panter, Austin Corbin from the series The Near Extinction and Salvation of the American Buffalo, 1981, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches.

Jim Drain, untitled (bench), 2010, powder coated stainless steel and aluminum. These weren't part of the exhibit--they were right outside the gallery. 

William Copley, The Seven Year Itch, 1973, acrylic on linen, 58 x 45 inches.

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