Two Roads Diverged-Guess Which One Warhol Took

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

path.”