Why Art History Needs A Re-Write: High Times /Hard Times

Art Amnesia
Memory can contradict art history. Sometimes it makes one lose faith in that unfortunate discipline, which, like history itself, is subject to the whims of the present. Once the witnesses have passed on, leaving no trace, history as written becomes truth. History is always in the present tense. Like the history of the world, art history belongs to the winners.
“Wack!” in L.A. no doubt leaves out many deserving feminist artists; “Global Feminisms” manages to omit quite a few out of a younger, but even more global, pool. There is no room! On top of this there’s no accounting for taste, exigencies, and curatorial whim. So many now claimed as feminist have not, nor have ever been, feminists in the past.
By the way, what is a feminist artist? I remember what they were in the ’70s. There had to be feminist content. It wasn’t just enough to be a woman concerned with feminist issues. The art had to show it. At one point critic Lucy Lippard proposed the grid and centralized imagery as feminist forms. But anyone could come up with male artists who used the grid and centralized imagery. There’s the problem of intention. After two decades of theory and non-activism, as a second-wave feminist friend recently explained to me, a feminist artist is any artist without a penis.
Is there something about the word “revisionism” that you don’t understand?
On the Ruins of the Master Narrative
“High Times/ Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975” at the National Academy of Design (1083 Fifth Ave. at 89th St., through April 22nd) is also a critique of art history and attempts a correction. Although 17 women artists to 21 men is a higher proportion than is usual in survey exhibitions, “High Times” is not about the exclusion of women from recent art history, but about what purports to be the exclusion of abstract painting.
We may still look at Pat Steir and Linda Benglis, but they and others who, according to curator Katy Siegel, attempted to expand painting in an anti-painting period (I agree with that designation) are apparently no longer part of the master narrative that has been taken over by post-modern conceptualism. This track is not my master narrative and probably not yours. It is the strictly academic narrative. On the other hand, nowhere in the catalog do I see proof that po-mo is indeed in control. If so, it’s funny that the ruins of the modernist master-narrative were quickly filled in, appropriated by postmodernist, antipainting photography. Somebody somewhere must really need a master narrative to make sense of art.
On the other hand, winners are now defined by sales figures. Goodbye, serious critical tomes. Goodbye, museums as gatekeepers. We are becoming an art world where only bad artists have galleries, only bad artists sell.
When neglected art — art that has not been investment-protected — reappears, it must stand the test of a new context; it must be re-written. During the current art splurge might be the time. There are bargains to be had. Neglected art might be a better investment than the MFA Art now rampant.
I should also remind you that it is not only women artists who have fallen by the wayside — without the collector and institutional support of males, there’s a bigger wayside. But most male artists are also forgotten. Furthermore, it is not just post-minimal abstract painting that has fallen through the cracks. An exhibitions at a top gallery; an art magazine art cover; even a museum retrospective is no guarantee of art history viability. Without descendents willing to gamble on storage costs, the art will eventually rot or simply be thrown out.
Older artists are given the shaft. The collectors want their artists to be young and dumb…and cheap. It doesn’t even help if you are dead.
The Master Narrative Redux
Siegel’s catalogue essay for “High Times/ Hard Times” is called Another History is Possible. And therein is the thesis of this interesting but problematic exhibition. Somehow the triumph of postmodernism occurred at the expense of abstract painting, which since 1967 has been written out of art history by the Octoberists. The later is a term invented by the clever Robert Pincus-Witten in his catalog contribution, Receding Horizons: Fading Notes on the Seventies. I think he gives his enemies too much credit.
Unfortunately the proposed rewrite buys into the notion that only abstraction counts, but this time we are allowed to extend abstract painting beyond Greenbergian formalism and most Minimalism to include, with some exceptions, some pretty bad paintings.
A few great things in the exhibition, although now called paintings by their makers, are really sculptures: a poured latex floorpiece by Lynda Benglis (Blatt, 1969) and some braided-rag “rugs”(floor pieces) by Harmony Hammond (1974). Both kinds of work, by the way, were in my 1983 exhibition “Floored” at C.W. Post College Hillwood Art Gallery, in Long Island.
Others in “High Times/Hard Times,” such as Lee Lozano, Richard Tuttle, and Carolee Schneemann, have already been praised in Artopia, as has the enormously talented Steir. Artopians admire Kusama also, but positioning her as a painter is, well, reductive. Several are among the disappeared, most notably Peter Young. Dorothea Rockburne, represented here by a fine process piece, went on to disappoint; and, although I may be in the minority, I am unconvinced of the talent of Elizabeth Murray, who is celebrated far and wide for what look like bad, post-Minimal Frank Stellas.
But, beyond taste, Siegel makes a really big mistake. The exhibition should be called “New York Abstract ‘Painting’ 1967-1975.” Just for fun I went through some copies of columns I wrote for the Voice during this period. Although I covered Earth Art, post-minimalists, conceptualists, and a number of artists now represented at the National Academy, there was also a flowering of realist painting. Do the following names mean anything to you? Philip Pearlstein, Malcolm Morley, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack? Or how about the venerable Alice Neel?
It wasn’t painting that was dead, as the pedants would have it. It was abstract painting that was in eclipse, while realism took the lead. But, of course the self-described, post-structuralist academicians would have none of that. And apparently neither will Siegel who has fallen into the trap she has been trying to spring.
Art is more complicated than the Greenbergians, the Po-Mo Maoists, or even Siegel propose. The single-line model is wrong no matter how many women artists or forgotten abstract painters you plug in; think instead of a braid and you will be ahead of everyone else.
When writing about the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition at the Whitney, I mentioned 112 Greene Street (1970-1978), as the pioneering Soho art space. Jeffrey Lew, who owned the building, was the initiator and Matta-Clark showed much of his work in that raw, basically uncurated art venue also open to dancers, musicians and poets. In one of the back stacks of my library, I recently unearthed 112 Greene Street/Workshop published by N.Y.U. Press in 1981. It fully documents all the exhibitions and events at that legendary address.
Just as the “Wallace Berman and His Circle” exhibition at the Grey Gallery was an eye-opener, an exhibition about 112 Greene Street would be of great aid to any art history rewrite. Shouldn’t we take another look at Jeffrey Lew’s work? And what about Tina Girouard, Jene Highstein, Richard Nonas, Alan Saret, Italo Scanga? My musty tome lists (and often pictures) works by over a hundred artists. We don’t need less art history, we need more art histories.

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