It Hurts: New York Art From Warhol to Now , by Matthew Collings.
21 Publishing, 229 pages, $29.95.
The Sound of Sleat, by Jon Schueler. Picador, 359 pages, $30.
History is written by the victors, and art history is no exception. As
anyone knows who has perused the galleries off Madison Avenue and on 57th
Street, then taken the subway down to Chelsea and the meat-packing district
and SoHo, there is a grudge match going on in the art world. It’s a
cold war that has been fought for decades, though neither side likes even
to acknowledge the existence of the other. Broadly put, uptown sees itself
as standing for integrity, craft and a certain view of history. Downtown,
they don’t worry so much about history; they focus on the new:
surprise and publicity. As long as the economy is buoyant, both sides
remain funded and afloat. The market, however, is not the only battlefield.
On another front–the printed word–downtown trendiness has won
out, at least in the sense that it dominates the magazines and draws
crowds. The uptown guardians of tradition will take one look at Matthew
Collings’ It Hurts and say that the downtown victors now have
the history they deserve.
Casual as a pair of used corduroys, It Hurts is the companion
volume to Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Art World From
Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst . The author, Matthew Collings, is a
British art-world boulevardier who in his New York book assumes
toward his subject what sounds to an American ear like English
condescension–he’s mildly interested, but uses a lot of
exclamation points to prop up the excitement. The material seems to have
been culled during Mr. Collings’ brief raids on Manhattan to make
documentary programs on art for BBC television. It Hurts is designed
as a book to flip through, with color reproductions of artworks and vivid,
if somewhat prurient, photographs by Ian MacMillan of artists in their
studios. In tone and manner, Mr. Collings mimics Andy Warhol: catty,
clever, jaded. His is an up-to-the-minute, in-the-know book, art history
for those without historical imagination or attention span.
Like Warhol, however, the author comes up with a surprising number of
epigrammatic insights. On early video works: “It sounds nuts, but some
of these ideas you just go along with.” On the Reagan era: “Greed
is good! they laughed. (Then in the 90′s they said, Tibet is good! And
greed too!)” On Neo-Expressionism: “The new painting was a huge
retching after a tight congestion.” And “New art always looks
satirical and anarchic, even when it’s Minimalism.” Or on young
artists today: “They define themselves in terms of what decade they
ironically enjoy reliving.” On mass culture: “Not bad but must be
deconstructed.” About 15 minutes into the book (which takes you maybe
two-thirds of the way through), after a handful of these gnomic one-liners,
you begin to wonder if there isn’t more to the author than his
laid-back, airhead attitude at first led you to suspect.
Mr. Collings has no intention of telling the whole story of art in New
York for the last 35 years. Skimming the surface like a water strider, he
scoots from one bit of gossip to the next. Only the trends and flashier
personalities catch his eye, and these he covers well though not
exhaustively. For instance, he has little to say about photography and
absolutely nothing to say about unfashionable figurative painters like Jane
Freilicher or Fairfield Porter. He includes Barbara Kruger and Cindy
Sherman, whom he calls feminist artists, while ignoring the political,
AIDS-influenced work of Felix Gonzales-Torres and David Wojnarowicz. If
there is a legend attached to a name, he can use it. So Clement Greenberg
stands for all critics; Jeffrey Deitch (who in the 80′s worked as an
art adviser forCitibank and now runs a gallery in SoHo) for all gallery
owners-cum-impresarios. Eventually the gaps and sporadic insights combine
to tell an interesting story about Matthew Collings’ take on his
subject, one that must be taken as a sly sort of commentary on the
fashionable precincts of the art world today.
“Pop,” he writes, “is confusing because we’re not
sure if it’s meant to be popular, or just about things that are
popular.” Much the same can be said of Mr. Collings. Is he aping the
trends or is he their true representative? Does he refuse to look below the
surface because he’s as vapid as Jeff Koons or because he doesn’t
believe his subject worthy of serious thought? There’s a disconcerting
tension between the faux naïveté he brings to his tour of
parties, studios and openings, and the flip, often sneering way he
dismisses much of what he finds.
Perhaps Mr. Collings can’t check his irritation with the art scene
because he’s a victim of nostalgia–he’s maybe even a bit of
a crypto-conservative. Throughout his book he returns, with obvious
admiration, to the high-minded practitioners of Greenbergian formalism:
painters like Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, or the sculptor Anthony
Caro. But in the end, Mr. Collings writes, style always trumps substance:
“Photos from the 60′s of bushy-sideburned people standing around
staring at metal or Plexiglas cubes just seem right, somehow.” (Note
the bushy-sideburned author staring out from the front cover.) Once, toward
the end of the book, he lets down his guard: Writing about the coldness,
the lack of passion, he finds in the work of Jasper Johns and Robert
Rauschenberg, he ventures that “Maybe they’re the beginning of
going off the path.” These two artists began exhibiting in the
50′s, just before Warhol. By such reckoning, one can only conclude
that Mr. Collings followed Mr. Johns and Mr. Rauschenberg off the path when
he decided to tell the story of the art stars who came later.
The second-generation abstract expressionist Jon Schueler stuck close to
the path of seriousness or, as he would put it, moral integrity. Almost
nobody today has heard of him–there’s no sign that Mr. Collings
has. And yet Schueler identified as early as 1972 precisely the errancy Mr.
Collings is just now wondering about. Schueler writes: “[Today] nearly
every art object or art activity, the painting of a Volkswagen, a John F.
Kennedy bust, Gilbert and George, the living sculptures, are camp and
depend upon the show, upon show-biz, and upon a hip audience to laugh at
the joke. During the 50′s, I felt this
decadence in such men as Rauschenberg and Johns (camp),
or Michel Tapié (the neo-Dada power play), and at times railed
against them. But I had no idea that the forces and power of camp would
become Warhol and New York and Documenta 5, until the Art World was
Camp, and the artists had truly gone underground.”
Schueler died in 1992, leaving behind a manuscript of some 2,700 pages
of diaries and letters for a book he had planned since 1957. Magda Salvesen
(his widow) and Diane Cousineau have done an extraordinary job distilling
the whole into The Sound of Sleat , a chronicle of the painter’s
boyhood in Wisconsin, his service during World War II as a B-17 navigator
and, primarily, of his life in the art world from the 50′s to the
70′s. It also contains long passages describing his life in, and
obsession with, Mallaig Vaig, a hamlet in Scotland on the eponymous Sound
of Sleat. Schueler studied art with Clyfford Still in San Francisco, and
lived in many picturesque spots in Europe and the United States, but New
York and Mallaig Vaig remained the twin foci in his elliptical life.
Whereas Mr. Collings’ book never tacks from its course of breezy
aloofness, The Sound of Sleat digs earnestly into one man’s
psyche–but even so contrives to dish good gossip. An excellent,
complicated, time-leaping narrative, Schueler’s self-portrait provides
an object lesson in both the dangers and rewards of taking oneself
seriously. Though Schueler had periods of relative success, he never became
a star like so many of his friends from the 50′s. He knew them all:
Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett
Newman, the whole crew. But Jon Schueler’s was the first one-man show
at Leo Castelli’s gallery–just before the dealer took up the
dynamic duo of Mr. Johns and Mr. Rauschenberg–just before, as Mr.
Collings puts it, “the beginning of going off the
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