A Goat is A Goat is A Goat: No Narrative in New Narrative

Posted May 9, 2007 in
But do we really need art criticism? It occurred to me, while attending a recent exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center, that the answer is yes. In "New Narrative: Warhol, Stella, Marden, Fitzpatrick,” I was surprised to see the works of very different artists presented as if they were all variations on a single theme - narrative. But where, in the midst of what struck me as a forced conjunction of austere mono-prints, slick poster-Pop, playful collages and Mexican lottery tickets, was the unifying narrative, or for that matter, any narrative at all?

Never Say Never (courtesy of myspace.com/neversaynevermi)

I do not demand either unity or narrative from art. I am aware that beginning with Robert Rauschenberg's "combines" of the mid-50s, the art world gleefully abandoned its high-modernist pretensions to stylistic unity, and turned to experimentation with hybrids. Artists began to mix and match, juxtapose and provoke, promote direct political action as well as communal interaction. Gone were the good old days of abstract expressionism. Gone were Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko - artists who sought to produce godlike presences, icons of themselves. Instead, postmodern artists pandered spectacle and theatricality. This new wave of artists cashed in their stock in the genuinely rare and came instead to value the rarity, the novelty, the curiosity, whatever was simply quirky and hip. Where the unique and original once was, now there is the popular and the copy.

This decisive turning point was identified with great clarity by renowned art scholar Michael Fried. In his landmark essay of 1962, "Art and Objecthood," Fried declares painting to be on the verge of exhaustion. And Frank Stella (amongst other key painters such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski), Fried proclaims, is the chosen one who will either save painting or die trying. Fried identifies painting’s enemies as a new group of artists (Tony Smith, Donald Judd, Carl Andre) known as the minimalists, or literalists. These artists cheerfully reject the old Renaissance tradition that paintings are windows to imaginary worlds. Instead of paintings or even traditional sculptures, they sought deliberately to produce mere objects, brute and banal cylinders and cubes that simplely get in the way. Gazing in rapt admiration upon such chunks of wood and stone would be as misguided a response as admiring the aesthetic qualities of a parking stall or a traffic pylon.

The genius of Stella's breakthrough paintings, at least as far as Fried is concerned, lies in their ability to present powerfully compelling abstract images, while at the same time never denying the fact that these images rely upon physical supports, the very real boards or canvases they're painted on. Stella's images consist of nested squares or nestled wedges, whose shape is entirely determined by the shape of the canvas. Here, image and support mutually imply and sustain one another, producing the effect of perfect simultaneity. They can be fully seen and perfectly understood in a single instant of intuition. And where there is no time, there can be no stories.

Now, let me turn to the show up for discussion: New Narratives. In looking at the Warhol prints in his Ten Famous Jews from the 20th Century series, I can't help but notice their close resemblance to Picasso's portraits and neo-classical drawings from the 20s and 30s. Then I turn specifically to the portrait of Gertrude Stein, which had it not been conveniently labeled I might well have taken for a portrait of Julius Caesar. Stein was one of Picasso's closest friends and the subject of one of his most famous paintings. Warhol is obviously quoting Picasso, but not in subject matter alone. The bold patches of color unmistakably recall Picasso's use of real scraps of wallpaper in his drawings to signify texture, depth, and shadow and light. More important however, is Warhol's use of rapidly drawn outlines. These mark out only the most essential features of his subjects, and give the drawings the look of the ancient Greek or Etruscan vases, which Picasso admired. Warhol, in swiftly tracing over photographic images, is glibly quoting Picasso's neo-classical style.

Now, Picasso turned deliberately toward myth, in particular the wild transformation stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in order to counter the growing belief that as a cubist he was trying to cultivate a style, which was perfectly timeless, which had nothing to do with narrative. Warhol, on the other hand, in total opposition to Picasso, strategically pirates the master's style, and uses it, insolently, to produce a series of bust shots, which have all the gravitas of collector’s-edition Big Gulp cups. Warhol has expunged all depth, narrative and history from his images of modern mythical figures. He produces neither archetypes nor ambivalent dream images, but simply multiple prints of celebrities. Certainly we are shown the classicized faces of important Jews, both men and women. But Jews here are completely dissociated from anything that might allude to their actual historical achievements. Images of Einstein, Gertrude Stein and Justice Brandeis are placed on equal footing, or better said, given equal billing, with Sarah Bernhardt and The Marx Brothers. Rather than for founding states, splitting atoms, or interpreting the law, these Jews are famous simply for being Jewish. Here, greatness is stripped of all grandeur, the heroic stripped of mighty deeds. Fashion photographer that he is, Warhol mechanically copies (again, by literally tracing faces marked by "Roman" noses) the superficial characteristics of classicism. But what he admires is not any inner spirit so much as a deathly coolness. And there the issue ends. There is no story.

As for Frank Stella's contribution to the show, his 11 illustrations of Had Gadya, the shows brochure informs us, are based on an earlier series of prints by Russian artist El Lissitzky. Now, Had Gayda is a traditional Passover song, usually sung to help keep children awake and amused during the nighttime vigil. The song, which is literally about a baby goat, operates on the same principle as "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly." Originally, the patently absurd lyric had no particular significance. Soon enough however, clever scholars, searching for interpretive fodder, insisted the story must mean something more. Thus began the effort to interpret a nonsense rhyme symbolically, allegorically: "the goat clearly represent the chosen people, and so obviously the hungry cat that eats the goat represents.. yiddle-diddle-dee, yiddle--diddle-dum (acknowledgements and apologies to Susan Sontag and Sarah Silverman). Now, Lissitzky was a student of the deeply religious Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich, and he may very well have been drawn to the idea that cryptic meanings could have been encoded within the words of a children's song. His illustrations of the song in fact resemble the mystical fantasies of Marc Chagall far more than the crisp graphic designs usually associated with him, and they certainly seem to share in the spirit of Jewish mystical allegory. But Stella's prints, on the other hand, conceive of allegory in a completely different manner. Here, rather than understanding allegories as images with a symbolic meaning in excess of what they immediately show, allegory is instead completely emptied and flattened. Allegory, for Stella, means simply an image, which cannot be seen and understood (as Fried would have wanted) in a single instant. Allegories are those images, which, by virtue of there of excessive busyness, glitter, splash and hybridity, require the viewer to perceive them in pieces and over time. The goat in Had Gadya, according to Stella's view of things, is neither more meaningful or less literal than the salvaged goat in Robert Rauschenberg's notorious Monogram. Stella's allegory is depleted of all allegoricity, which is to say emptied of all spirituality and meaning, and emptied of all narrative.

As for the other two artists represented in the show, Brice Marden and Tony Fitzpatrick, their work, like Stella's, makes sense to me insofar as it experiments not so much with narrative as with the notion of the support. Though Marden and Fitzpatrick work in very different styles, their medium, at least in the pieces on display in this show, is the same. Both artists use printed etching to produce works whose graphic quality possesses not the commercial slickness of Warhol so much as that of a deliberate craftsman such as Rembrandt. The actual marks they make, rather than suggesting a photographer's grease pencil, attest to their use of the engraver's metal burin.

A further attribute of their work, derivative of the printing process, is the presence of square embossments. One can see here how the pressure applied to the print surface has left a shallow relief, which surrounds and frames the images. In the highly austere, and to my eye highly sensitive, series of unnamed prints by Brice Marden, this slight but unignorable trace of the production process is fully integrated into the image and functions to create the effect of a window through which the viewer is invited to look. The flatness ordinarily associated with graphic work is thus suspended, at least momentarily, and one feels oneself returned to the visual space of abstract painting.

This effect is powerfully reinforced through other compositional means employed in Marden's prints. The series begins with images composed of simple horizontal lines and textured bars, unmistakably evocative of horizon and sky. These are examples of a printer working with the vocabulary of landscape. Approaching and retreating from the images allows the viewer to elicit differing visual effects from the prints, suggestive either of the atmospheric depth, which I have already mentioned, or of the flatness normally associated with a print.

Once this set of expectations, or codes of viewing, has been established in the first prints, Marden then proceeds, in the following images, to frustrate the viewer's ability to play with these effects, by multiplying the number of horizontals and exchanging them for verticals. The viewer is left, then, with a series of visual utterances employing the basic vocabulary of landscape, though no longer adhering to the conventions of landscape's visual grammar. To view the later prints in Marden's series is feel the window, or perhaps door, the artist had opened for us in an initial gesture of welcome, and which he had allowed us freely to adjust, to begin, with an ever-increasing amount of pressure, gradually to close. They shut us out and shut vision down.

That there is a motivation behind this sequence of images is hard to doubt. But that mere sequence amounts to a veritable narrative seems far less certain. Overtly experimental as Marden's prints are, it seems unreasonable that we should be expected to see them in narrative terms any more than we would be justified in reading narrative into a series of blood tests. There may indeed be a real human story behind the elevated level of toxins found in my blood stream at a given moment, or my decreasing ability to read an eye chart. But seen strictly from the perspective of experimental medicine, all that matters are visible effects and their demonstrable causes. Here, once again, there is no narrative.

Finally, I want to turn to the work of Tony Fitzgerald. This very contemporary artist offers a series of prints, which in a nod to the baroque philosopher Blaise Pascal, is called “The Infinite Wager.” Fitzgerald’s prints also integrate the embossed trace of the printing press into the image itself. But in this instance the effect is quite different from that achieved in Marden. Fitzgerald’s compositions, which combine elements of cartoon, bathroom graffiti and third world devotional art, are emphatically flat; they make no reference, not even a negative one as in Marden, to easel painting. Instead, they announce themselves as the work of an amateur or primitive. Which is why I must chuckle, not at, but with the Fitzgerald, when he archly advertises himself as “fine artist.”

In embracing the nave, Fitzpatrick’s work shows a certain affinity with Warhol. In place of Andy’s cool interest in glamour though these pieces derive what little mystique they have, from Fitzpatrick’s postmodern appropriation of the vernacular of folk art, superstition, white-trash culture – skulls, devils, serpents, pinup girls, whiskey bottles and playing cards. Of course, this repertoire of images is the stock in trade of prison art. And consequently I want to read the embossing in these images, the visible trace of the press, as evoking the pressure entailed in producing a tattoo. Here the engraver’s burin is metaphorically transformed into the skin artist’s needle.

It would be almost impossible to look at Fitzgerald’s prints without having images of old school flash-art come to mind. What distinguishes Fitzgerald’s images drastically from real tattoos, and simultaneously lessens their impact, is the obvious fact that they are not pricked into skin but instead pressed onto paper. In the same way that their iconography can not be taken literally but instead displays a sense of ironic detachment (for clearly the artist’s interest in games of chance reflects not a belief in metaphysical Fate but rather in simple accident and coincidence), the intense pressure indicated by the printing mark refers not to any painful bodily ordeal but simply a physical process undergone by an inanimate substance. Paper may indeed be a kind of tissue, but it is certainly not a sensitive living membrane. At the same time Fitzgerald offers us superstition emptied of all belief, he simultaneously offers us images of experience emptied of all ordeal, which is to say “experience” emptied of all experience – either in terms of a painful event commemorated with a tattoo, or the actual pain produced by repeated jabs from a needle.

Or, even if we do choose to feel some vague pathos in Fitzgerald's use of paper as surrogate skin, it is still not possible to read the random assemblage of assorted images as the result of any purposive process. The living body here would offer itself not as a surface bearing monumental inscriptions so much as a simple scratch pad or bulletin board - the kind of outrageous absurdity depicted in the Christopher Nolan film Memento, whose traumatized protagonist is decidedly handicapped when it comes to forming coherent narratives. Image this same film, but without the precipitating crime, and you have the art of Tony Fitzgerald. Rather than creating and playing with the idea of depth, the stamping marks in Fitzgerald's pieces, then, emphasize their absolute superficiality. If narrative, to function as narrative, requires some kind of stakes, the stakes in "Infinite Wager" strike me as decidedly, if not infinitely, low.

Certainly we all do, and should, see art in our own unique and powerful ways. However, it seems to me that our response to art is never so powerful or significant as it is in those moments of insight when we not only know we like something but also suddenly find ourselves able to explain, to others, and ourselves what precise quality in a work of art has captured our mind or imagination. In these statements, the work suddenly takes on an increased meaning and reality for us. And so we should be careful in how we talk about works of art, because the words we use to talk about them soon become an actual part of them. Criticism is not an individual activity. It can only function properly in communities in which statements are frequently exchanged and opinions revised. If these conditions are not met criticism does not disappear; it hardens into dogma, while opinion turns into mere claptrap. We become so accustomed to using certain fashionable words, narrative being just one of them, that we begin finding an opportunity to use them anywhere, and cease questioning their appropriateness when we hear them, or see them brightly printed onto free brochures.