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Monday, June 20, 2011


Masterpieces from the Palm Springs Art Museum
Permanent CollectionJune 18, 2011

John Baldessari, Six Colorful Gags (Male), 1991, photogravure, color aquatint and spit-bite aquatint,
edition 22/25

“We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” Oscar Wilde

(quoted in Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, St. Martin’s Press, 1989)

“Postmodernity . . . is merely a theoretical construct, of interest primarily as a symptom of the current mood of the Western intelligentsia. . . . Not only does belief in a postmodern epoch generally go along with rejection of socialist revolution as either feasible or desirable, but it is the perceived failure of revolution which has helped to gain widespread acceptance of this belief.” (Id. Callinicos, p.9)

“The political odyssey of the 1968 generation is, in my view, crucial to the widespread acceptance of the idea of a postmodern epoch in the 1980’s. This was the decade when those radicalized in the 1960s and early 1970s began to enter middle age. Usually they did so with all hope of socialist revolution gone – indeed, often having ceased to believe in the desirability of any such revolution. Most of them had by then come to occupy some sort of professional, managerial or administrative position, to have become members of the new middles class, at a time when the over-consumptionist dynamic of Western capitalism offered this class rising living standards. This conjuncture – the prosperity of the Western new middle class combined wit the political disillusionment of many of its most articulate members – provides the context to the proliferating talk of postmodernism.” (Id. Callinicos, p.168)

I am quite aware that many of the works I have included in this essay are not classifiable as “post-modern.” in the vocabulary of contemporary criticism. Kiefer’s expressionism, for example, the classical Modernism of Arp, cannot be included under such a classification if the concept is to have any meaning at all. But the fundamental point of the words of Alex Callinicos quoted above, is precisely that there is no actual historical or aesthetic break between what we have come to know as Modernism and its “post-Modernist” tail. The works that greet the visitor at the Palms Springs Art Museum, as well as many of the works in the special exhibits, are definitely of a “post-modern” cast, defined as such by contemporary critics too many to list. For that reason, and given the particularly high quality of the Museum's Modernist collection, (which includes works of Warhol, Hanson, Nara, Foulkes, De Andrea) I have chosen to focus here on those that are defined as "post-Modernist" to address the historical quandary these works themselves proclaim.

[click on the images to enhance viewing]

Duane Hanson, "Old Couple on a Bench" 1995 (polychromed bronze and mixed media with accessories. edition 2/2) “In my sculpture, I attempt to detach myself from the subject. Although my earlier works were rather expressionistic with outbursts against war, crime and violence in general, I now find my most successful pieces are less topical and idiographic. They are naturalistic or illusionistic, which results in an element of shock, surprise and psychological impact for the viewer. The subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower and middle class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of their existence, captures the true reality of life for these people. Consequently, as a realist, I am interested in the human form and especially the faces and bodies which have suffered like some weather worn landscape the erosion of time. In portraying this aspect of life I want to achieve a certain tough realism which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our time. I want my sculptures to convey a certain sense of stylelessness which will capture the contemporary feeling of reality.” Duane Hanson (Contemporary Artists. St. James Press, 1994

Yoshitomo Nara, "Your Dog" 2002 (fiberglass, edition 4/6)

To substantiate his proposition that Post-Modernism has appropriated Modernist motifs, Callinicos quotes from Eugene Lunn (Marxism and Modernism, London, 1985, pp. 34-37) and incorporates Lunn’s definition of Modernism, by way of the latter’s assertions, with explicatory notes, as follows:

“‘1. Aesthetic Self-Consciousness or Self-Reflexiveness.’ The process of producing the work of art becomes the focus of the work itself: Proust, of course, provided the definitive example in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

‘2. Simultaneity, Juxtaposition, or “Montage”,’ The work loses its organic form and becomes an assemblage of fragments, often drawn from different discourses or cultural media. Cubist and Surrealist collages come to mind, along with the practice of cinematic montage developed by Eisenstein, Vertov and other revolutionary Russian film-makers.

‘3. Paradox, Ambiguity, and Uncertainty.’ The world itself ceases to have a coherent, rationally ascertainable structure, and becomes, as Hofmannsthal says, multiple and indeterminate. Klimt’s great paintings ‘Philosophy’, ‘Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, commissioned for the University of Vienna but rejected because of the scandal their dark and ambiguous images represented to Enlightenment thought, exemplify this vision.

‘4. “Dehumanization” and the Demise of the Integrated Individual Subject or Personality.’ Rimbaud’s famous declaration ‘JE est un autre’ (‘I am another’) finds its echoes in the literary explorations of the unconscious inaugurated by Joyce and pursued by the Surrealists.”

[Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, (London, 1985), quoted in Callinicos, op. cit. at pp. 12-13]

Paragraph one can be summarized as the preoccupation with the Subject, or with subjectivity, characteristic of Western thought since Kant, or even Descartes. Paragraph two refers to the lack of a unifying style in Modernism, a phenomenon that Nietzsche forecast in his early essay of 1873, David Strauss: the Confessor and the Writer (David Strauss: der Bekenner und der Schriftsteller). Paragraph three refers to the consequences in thought that flow inevitably from Nietzsche’s notion of the “death of God,” for no structure or coherent order, nor the claims of reason themselves, can be ascertainable or justifiable if there is no God. Paragraph four refers to the Modernist preoccupation with unconscious thought (Freud).

The work depicted below, for example, illustrates the lack of a boundary between the artificial distinction of 'modernism' and 'post-modernism'. The creation of an ambiguous subject (who or what is "Joan"?) in the form of a montage (note the materials used by the artist:
oil on polyester resin with synthetic hair) fashions a paradox in the form of a realistic reproduction of a human being that is not a human being, even though it beckons the viewer as if it were such. We engage with "Joan" in a way that we would not with a mannequin or a doll. The artist has created a work that could, in terms of style and contemporaneity, be undoubtedly classified as 'post-modernist,' despite falling clearly within Lunn's definition of Modernism.

John De Andrea, "Joan" 1990 (oil on polyester resin with synthetic hair)

John De Andrea, "Joan" 1990 (detail)

Llyn Foulkes, "The Last Outpost" 1983 (mixed media assemblage)

"Llyn Foulkes combines in "The Last Outpost," above, a child’s fantasies with his own ironic commentary on the corporate manipulation of a child’s innocence. He uses the smiling, popular icons of the Lone Ranger and Mickey Mouse and a child acting out his fantasy. Anger, nostalgia for the past, apprehension for the future, and changing values are represented in this complex work." (Commentary on the work is the Museum’s)

The continuity of 'modernism' in 'post-modernism' is determined by the fact that both movements, if there are indeed two, are both the expression of the culture of capitalism. As Marshall Berman articulates it:

"The polarities that shape and animate the culture of modernism [capitalism] . . . are the theme of insatiable desires and drives . . .and its radical antithesis, the theme of nihilism, insatiable destruction." (Marshall Berman, Everything Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin. 1988 [1982])

The works of sculpture and painting, below, are the art of an "age of surfaces" which depict, alternatively, desire or destruction:

Teresita Fernandez, "Ivy" 2002 (acrylic cubes)

Teresita Fernandez, "Ivy" 2002 (detail)

The power of Teresita Fernandez' acrylic cubes (above), it seems to me, is that they resemble emeralds. Arranged in the manner of an open neck-piece, they are an incitement to desire: the mysterious fascination for the jewel. And the same could be said of other glass sculpture in exhibit:

The womb and the phallus

Contemporary Glass Exhibit
Through October 31, 2011
Denney Western American Art Wing

The "place," resurrection and the whirlwind: compromises with the Moment

Neo Rauch, "Die Lage" (The Place) 2006 (oil on canvas)

Neo Rauch, "Die Lage" (The Place) 2006 (detail)

Anselm Kiefer, "L'Ascension" (The Ascension) 1978-2008 (oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and resin-coated ferns on canvas)

Andrew Schoultz, "Monument to a Whirlwind" 2010 (mixed media on paper)

Standing Figures

Nathan Olivera, "Untitled. Standing Figure" 1989 (oil and vine charcoal on canvas)

Jean Arp (Untitled)

Andy Warhol, "Brillo Box Dress" 1964 (silkscreen ink on fabric)

Louise Bourgeois, "Spider II" 1995 (bronze. edition 4/6)

Antony Gormley, "Apart X" 2002 (mild bright steel blocks)

This piece by Antony Gormley (above) reminds me of a sculpture I saw at the Museum of Art of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It has the same appearance of anonymity in repose. (see below):

With gratitude to the Palm Springs Museum of Art