Modernism dealt with focusing one’s attention on a specific genre. The hybrid notion of art was, generally speaking, a foreign terrain. I am not convinced that Modernism started out in terms of specific genres, but that is clearly the way it evolved, particularly in the post-World War II era. The focus was on an artist’s style, and the artist was only expected to do one thing well.
Doing one thing well – or, I should say, consistently – was what the collectors, the museums, and eventually the dealers came to expect of the artist. The global network was teeming with artists, so it was important – though not significant – to come to terms with artists as representing specific genres and maintaining particular styles. This became the crux of late Modernism. It was no wonder that after the fall of Greenbergian ideas, artists dealt New York a heavy dosage of anti-Modernist art in the sixties. By anti-Modernist, I refer to the new genres of the sixties, which included primarily Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual, and Earth Art (a spin-off Minimalism). At the time the concern was expressed more in terms of “anti-formalism” not anti-Modernism. However, as I have written elsewhere, the anti-formalism of the Sixties was a misunderstanding as to the nature of formalism. Formalism can take many forms, and the aesthetic of purely visual formalism of Greenberg was only one of these. Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art were yet another form of formalism. Instead of the purely visual emphases used in the paradigm of Greenberg, these other genres emphasized the linguistic paradigm of the Russian formalists; that is, they took a more dialectical approach to form, but still maintained the concept that art was a reductivist enterprise, that form was a matter of getting down to a primary structure. In the case of Conceptualism in the late Sixties, this primary structure had to be language itself. From this perspective, one might see the Conceptualism of this period more in terms of an ultra-formalism rather than an anti-formalist tendency.
Given the passage from late Modernism, which included a strong anti-Modernist aspect, to post-Modernism in the eighties, there existed an uneasy period of “pluralism” in the seventies. Pluralism was as much a marketing device as it was an accommodation of styles. Galleries began representing styles more than artists. When the breakdown of a critical language in advanced art became replaced by a kind of art reportage or art journalism in the worst sense, there came a popular notion that any style was all right. The collector simply needed to find the right gallery to accommodate his or her taste. The gallery was the go-between between the artist and collector insofar that the search was on for an appropriate style.
In the plethora of the vast art marketplace, style became a kind of trademark. This trademark was somewhat akin to the corporate logo. It was a sign without a context. It could be read anywhere. The artist’s style would not frustrate the collector. Part of the status of having a piece by a particular artist was to have friends of the collector take notice of it without the collector ever having to utter a word. In other words, the piece was simply there on the wall or on the floor or in the backyard. It was like reading the cut of the suit without having to see the label. This “subtlety” or absence of enunciation meant everything. The artist might change styles, but only gradually. The evolution of gradation of styles had to be plausible – that is, marketable.
In the eighties, pluralism ended more or less with the advent of European Neo-Expressionism and figuration, offset by a rash of post-Modernist theory, post-Structuralist theory, and German critical theory. Soon artists began reacting against the looseness of expressionism again – a repetition, in fact, of what had occurred in New York in the mid-sixties with artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt. But the eighties version of theory was more about appropriation; that is, taking French or German theory and using it out of context or reinventing its context in the form of praxis. The search was on to find a discourse of art independent of the expressionist mode, to plug art into theory so that one could make sense of theory through art, and to some extent, vice versa. The marketing system, however, had become much more sophisticated in the eighties, and therefore the accommodation of theory into marketing had supplanted the accommodation of styles during the seventies. Theory, in other words, was used to sell art.
Today, theory has replaced style as a marketing justification. The introduction of late Picabia into the New York marketplace in the early eighties by the Mary Boone Gallery signaled the possibility of an anti-style aesthetic. This notion, of course, had roots in the work of Duchamp and Man Ray. Picabia was the third link so to speak, in the triad of anti-style artists in the Modernist era. Now that the linkage was in place, it became a viable alternative to work according to an anti-style aesthetic and to ignore the vestiges of a pluralist hegemony. There were too few artists who could resist the pressures of the marketplace. Anti-style was misunderstood in a way not dissimilar to the misunderstanding of formalism in the early sixties.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1987.
Enameled aluminum, 30 x 150 x 30 cm. Courtesy of the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, formerly Rolf Ricke Collection.
What anti-style meant was that the artist could free herself or himself of a stylistic orientation toward the marketplace, and that in spite of this freedom, the artist could be doing significant work. It was about taking a risk factor and trying to make the risk factor a point of attention. It is interesting, for example, that the paintings of Gehrard Richter began to receive attention in New York in the mid-eighties after the fallout of Neo-Expressionism. Richter’s notice in New York reinforced the anti-style aesthetic seen in late Picabia. With Richter, however, there was a programmatic aspect to the work that was, in many ways, closer to a Minimalist aesthetic.
In the nineties, there was a further possibility of extending the premise of anti-style outside the realm of theory and into an accessible form of practice. Whereas the Modernist and post-Modernist artist had been more or less confined to the use of a style or trademark as a marketing device, it would now appear possible that the artist could become an agent of declassification. Since the late seventies, the art world had seen the evolution and development of the hybrid artist, i.e. the artist-critic, artist-editor, artist-dealer, etc. This phenomenon of artistic hybridization is not simply a matter of working bereft of a stylistic intention, but it is also a matter of engaging oneself in a plurality of activities as those activities seem appropriate to one’s entry into a real discourse on art.
With Conceptualism in the late sixties, there came the notion that the subject of art was a series of investigations or serializations based on a particular concept or proposition as to the nature of art. In the early seventies, there was another tendency to engage in the art-making activities as a political position according to one’s ideology. Since the subject of art has, in one form or another, become a question of contextualizing one’s activity, would it not be appropriate to extend these parameters into another type of Diaspora? If the discourse of one’s art requires or suggests moving between classifications or categories in order to heighten or sustain an argument of significance, what is the problem with the complete relinquishment of one’s identity as concurrent with a particular style? To become declassified as an artist means that one is willing to move from the realm of theory to practice without style. Therefore, one can no longer be classified as an expressionist or a conceptualist or a minimalist or a feminist or, for that matter, an artist or critic or dealer or professor. To be declassified means that one’s activity is about engaging oneself in discourse. How the concept of art moves between these classifications is less important than the quality of what is stated within any of the categories in which one might choose to work.
Whereas modernism separates the artist from the critic or the artist from the dealer or the critic from the editor or the painter from the photographer according to some stylistic predisposition, it would now seem possible to drop this Ego Ideal and to enter into the language of art as a preeminent concern. When the artist begins to grasp the relative isolation of himself within the larger context of this or any other society, it should inevitably follow that hyper-specialization a la self-criticism is somewhat solipsistic. This is not to discourage the singular vision of certain artists whose achievements are considerable in this regard. It is merely a plea to open the field of activities for the artist in order to address the greater issues of art in relation to a culture that would appear less and less involved with the subject as thinker.