December 27, 2008

EASIER TO QUIT THAN TO STRIVE:

THE PARALYZED CYCLOPS: MEDIATING A VIVID, DECADES-LONG ARGUMENT BETWEEN TWO GIANTS OF CONTEMPORARY ART (Lawrence Weschler, November/December 2008, The Believer)

For Irwin, cubism represents the culmination of a five-hundred-year-long process of flattening, as it were, in the subject deemed worthy of artistic attention (from Christ, to this king, to this burgher, to his maid, to her red shawl, to the color red, to the process of seeing the color red); and if one were to take seriously its greatest accomplishment—which is to say the so-called marriage of figure and ground—one couldn’t very well go on making paintings, which would necessarily have to read as figures to the wall’s ground, thereby undermining the whole point of the artistic project. Many critics of the Hilton Kramer variety saw despair in Irwin’s minimalist abnegation of traditional artistic practice, but to be clear: Irwin wasn’t suggesting that everything in the art world level out to a groundlike Zen backdrop; on the contrary, he was advocating a way of being in the world in which everything all around would get tended to (or at least be seen as being worthy of being tended to) with the same sort of heightened attention one used to lavish only on the figure in a work of art (hence his eventual progression to such improbably maximalist projects as the Central Gardens at the Getty or the overall design for DIA Beacon).

Even so, Hockney emphatically disagreed with Irwin’s characterization of the cubist challenge, already insisting to me just a few weeks later (for in the meantime he’d invited me to start visiting more regularly so that I might compose a text for a planned coffee-table book surveying the photocollage cameraworks series on which he’d only just launched out upon), “No! Cubism was precisely about saving the possibility of figuration, this ages-old need of human beings, going all the way back to Lascaux, to render the world in two dimensions, and saving that possibility at the moment of its greatest crisis, what with the onslaught of photography with all its false claims to being able to accomplish such figuration better and more objectively. It was about asserting all the things photography couldn’t capture: time, multiple vantages, and the sense of lived and living experience.” (For his part, critics often got Hockney all wrong as well, misinterpreting the intensity of the ways he would presently be engaging photography—taking literally hundreds of thousands of photos, coming to feel that the Old Masters themselves had been in thrall to a similar optical aesthetic—as a celebration of the photographic over the painterly, and specifically the post-optical painterly, when in fact all along he’d been engaged in a rigorous critique of photography and the optical as “all right,” in his words, “if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops, for a split second, but that’s not how the world really is.”)

Hockney that day back in 1982 went on to acknowledge that ever-greater degrees of abstraction constituted one possible path out of cubism. But he for one was sure that Picasso and Braque, from early on, would have realized that such a path would lead only to a dead end or, as he put it, “an empty room.”


While there was ample ideological reason for artists to have retreated into abstraction it was likely also just a function of their fear of competing with the representationalism of photographs.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2008 8:41 AM
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