May 23, 2013
Posted on Jan 30, 2013
The people who are buying and selling the most highly priced contemporary art right now—think of them as the laissez-faire aesthetes—believe that any experience that anyone has with a work of art is equal to any other. They imagine that the most desirable work of art is the one that inspires a range of absolutely divergent meanings and impressions almost simultaneously. The collectors who make sure that John Currin’s shows are sold out even before they open believe that it is their privilege to respond to anything at any time in any way they choose. A painting is simply what everybody or anybody says it is, what everybody or anybody wishes it to be. When collectors hang a Currin on the wall, they are given permission—more than that, they are given the right—to appreciate this oil cloth horror as a painterly painting as exquisite as a Velázquez, or to enjoy it as an incompetent high-kitsch sendup of classical painting, or to assess its value as social commentary, or to laugh at it as a piece of Dadaist stupidity for stupidity’s sake. Or they may enjoy their Currin as a financial trophy pure and simple, proof of their buying power. Or they may regard it as an object of delectation, in much the way that they have been instructed by some art-historian-turned-art-consultant to enjoy a Bonnard. They can have it every way. They experience no conflict. The painting is whatever the collector wants it to be. And Currin gives them enough cunningly mixed signals that the possibilities seem endless.
I recognize that the taste for Currin—and for Yuskavage and a number of other artists—is in part a continuation of developments that are now a generation or two old. The what-the-hell attitude with which the new high-end consumers of art confront the whole question of meaning will strike some as reminiscent of the mindset of a number of collectors in the early 1960s. Back then, there was a group of big spenders who were turning their attention from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art and boasting about how much fun they were having now that they had sloughed off the serious themes of the midcentury abstractionists. The in-your-face kitsch of Currin and Yuskavage is certainly related to that earlier rejection of modernist ideas about seriousness and quality. And laissez-faire aesthetics also owes something to the ironic fascination with downright incompetence that gave birth to the movement known as “‘Bad’ Painting,” kicked off in 1978 with a show of that name at the New Museum, organized by Marcia Tucker. By the time Tucker mounted her exhibition, there certainly existed what many regarded as a critical groundwork for the new counter-connoisseurship, in essays such as Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on Camp” and Pauline Kael’s 1969 “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
There are, however, essential differences between garbage then and garbage now. They are distinctions that would have been perfectly clear to Sontag and Kael, who had always taken for granted the significance of traditional artistic values, and who both, late in life, pointed out that they had never meant for camp or trash to trump old-fashioned quality. Pop Art and “Bad” Painting, in any event, were self-consciously ironic; they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent. Irony, even in the whatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the 1980s and 1990s, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They had a target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea. The artists treat everything equally. David Zwirner, the dealer who has played a major role in pushing Lisa Yuskavage’s reputation into the stratosphere, has observed in an open letter to the artist that “Frankly, I am not sure what your work is about.” He makes this declaration without any apparent embarrassment. And while Zwirner does hasten to add that the paintings are “utterly sincere,” I am left with the gathering suspicion that the meaning of the work is designed to be unresolved, that the work is meant to register as noncommittal, at least from the audience’s point of view. This laissez-faire attitude is just right for a new breed of high-end shopaholics.
John Currin has become the voice of laissez-faire aesthetics. The man and his art and his reputation reflect the cracked values of an art world where most of the people in charge no longer know what gives a work of art life. The unease or confusion that greets Currin’s portraits of suburban matrons and young cuties and gay couples, larded with allusions to old master paintings and pop culture, is said to mark the emergence of a freshly off-kilter sensibility. His lounge-lizard gambits are hailed for giving classical values a modern twist. In the catalogue of a recent retrospective of Currin’s work, the art historian Robert Rosenblum announced that “Currin knows his old masters inside out,” an assessment that Rosenblum based on his experience going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection with the artist. Currin has even curated a selection of masterworks at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, thereby proving that he likes Velázquez as much as the next guy. He certainly knows how to spritz ideas. He has a line on everything, from photographs of models in Cosmopolitan to Cranach’s Venuses and Eves. He dabbles with misogyny, but slyly, so that it registers as nouveau masculinity. And of course this pleases the guys in Tribeca, with their fashion-model girlfriends and steak dinners and cigars, among whom there might be somebody with the half-a- million bucks that you need to buy one of Currin’s paintings. This relative newcomer—Currin was born in 1962—is the art world’s equivalent of the fast-talking politician. He will overwhelm you with glittery ideas even as each sentence that comes out of his mouth leaves you more convinced that he believes in nothing.
The laissez-faire art world is a treacherous place. Even the most hard-fought vision or vantage point can look implausible in this slippery universe. And any artist who manages not only to maintain a personal vision but also to build a solid critical reputation becomes a paradoxical figure—an anomaly, if not a freak. Consider Bill Jensen, who is now in his sixties. He began, some thirty years ago, painting dark-toned, febrile abstractions, dream visions haunted by memories of the art of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove. In recent years his work has become more open, more expansive, more casually lyrical.
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