BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: The Lies We Tell Children
You’ll Be Remembered
A list of names: Landis Lewitin, Philip Pavia, Willem de Kooning, Milton Resnick Conrad Marca-Relli, Franz Kline, James Rosati, Ibram Lassaw, Lewin Alcopley, Ad Reinhardt, Giorgio Cavallon, John Roelants, Joop Sanders, Emanuel Navaretta, Charles Egan, Jack Tworkov, Gus Falk, Ahron Ben-Shmuel and Peter Grippe. Some of these names are familiar, well known in the annals of American even world art history, and some… But what do they have in common? These are the founding members of the legendary “Artists Club,” as compiled (complete with unfamiliar variations and misspellings) by Philip Pavia, the Secretary/Treasurer at its inception in 1949. In many ways, with all its flaws and foibles this “club” is the genetic code, the DNA from which the “New York School” grew.
What interests me, for the sake of this essay, is why some of these individuals have attained immortality and others have been totally forgotten? The standard reply is “some were just better artists, more talented or innovative,” but who decides? In my research, even with the omnipotent power of Internet search engines like Google, some of these artists, lively, involved, dynamic members of a community, are complete blanks. Some art critics, like the little clowns following the elephant parade with a broom and bucket, conscientiously sweeping up every trace of whatever is left by the passing pachyderms (except for their favorites), put forth the notion that those (art and artists) that have been forgotten, deserve to be forgotten.
Another common refrain is: Maybe they didn’t care about having a legacy, history wasn’t important for them. This may be true for a miniscule group, those creating artifacts as some private therapeutic activity, but the mere act of taking up the cloak of “artist” is a self-proclaimed engagement, however tangential, with the forces of “history”.
The Truth Will
Come Out Eventually
As Søren Kierkegaard noted, “Life must be understood backwards. But it must be lived forward.” To that I’ll add my own chestnut, “To understand the mystery of art, you have to understand the history of art.” In many ways, one of the most important aspects of art is its history. Because of its referential and interconnected nature, art can give a more accurate and understandable picture of a culture’s momentary state than its political, scientific or economic histories.
Irving Sandler (who took over Pavia’s duties at the “Club”), and Barbara Rose concluded in the late 60s that the New York scene had grown to such proportions that it was no longer possible for one person to keep track of its totality. Along with this astonishing boom in artists was a concomitant surge in critics, historians, galleries, museums, and publications whose ostensible purpose was the exposure, promotion, and preservation of important cultural production. Despite all these institutions, powerful forces—the market and general entropy among them—are waging and insidious battle to “streamline” history. Which brings us to the strange case of Philip Smith.
On September 24, 1977, Douglas Crimp’s seminal PICTURES: an exhibition of work by Troy Brauntuch Jack Goldstein Sherrie Levine Robert Longo Philip Smith opened at Artists Space. On April 21st, 2009, 32 years later, The Pictures Generation 1974-1984, organized by Douglas Eklund, Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs, and featuring the work of thirty artists opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As expected, during the intervening period the lives and careers of the five original “Pictures” artists have gone through ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, and indeed some have achieved the very highest ranking in today’s market. One, Jack Goldstein, arguably the most influential, after a long battle with drugs and depression dropped out of the art scene entirely and committed suicide in 2003. Yet, by my reckoning, Philip Smith, as a member of the original cast, was given more ink and images in Crimp’s original Artists Space catalog than all but Goldstein. Curiously, in Eklund’s catalog, he’s reduced to a single mention, in a sentence regarding the placement of his work in the original show.
Like the pearlescence enveloping the original irritating grain, a vast movement of related artists has grown up around the basic “Pictures” group. Yet, when a leading cultural institution deems them “ripe for rediscovery,” and includes a cadre of tertiary artists, one glaring hole remains. Where the hell is Philip Smith? (Full disclosure: I’ve been acquainted with Philip and his work for over twenty-five years and we’ve shown at some of the same galleries in New York and Europe.)
In his article “Signs of the Times,” which appeared in the October 2001 issue of ARTFORUM, David Rimanelli wraps up his thoughts on the restaging of the PICTURES show that occurred at Artists Space earlier in the year with “Perhaps the exhibitions oddest surprise was Philip Smith, whose schematic drawings figured prominently in the original show but who was demoted to a footnote in Crimp’s October text. Critic Jerry Saltz told me that when he visited Artists Space with some recent MFA grads, the works they responded to most were Smith’s—this sort of figurative, handmade imagery (like, say, that of Ida Applebroog or William Kentridge) best accorded with their idea of what art looks like, Smith was ‘cool’ the others ‘whatever.’ It certainly wasn’t the response I would have expected, but then again, like Pictures, maybe I’m a little dated.”
Academicians Get it Right
One of the sub-stories of this story is how it’s evolved, not through the mainstream press or academic journals, but through the network of blogs, magazine websites, and Internet social networking sites. As proof that we’ve now entered a new age of art reportage, we have Douglas Eklund’s interview at the Art In America Magazine website from April 4th (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2009-04-21/the-pictures-generation-a-conversation-with-douglas-eklund/) and Philip Smith’s own open letter in response, which appears there June 26th. (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2009-06-26/setting-the-record-straight-philip-smith-dougas-eklund-pictures-generation/). Smith’s letter contains further links and articles concerning his status as a PICTURES artist.
Within hours of the press preview, Lee Rosenbaum’s CultureGrrl blog featured an interview with Douglas Crimp in which she tries to pin down the original PICTURES curator about, among other things, the Smith omission. (http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2009/04/). Within a week or so, Jerry Saltz had commented on his Facebook page about the Smith omission (and although his feature-length review in New York Magazine doesn’t mention it, his reply to Douglas Eklund’s interview at the AiA web site does—http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/finer-things/2009-07-07/setting-the-record-straight-critics-respond-/). Other bloggers such as Seattle’s Regina Hackett at (http://www.artsjournal.com/anotherbb/2009/05/philip-smith- - -all-the-insults.html), “the Power” at Carefully Aimed Darts (http://carefullyaimeddarts.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/historical-erasure-at-the-pictures-generation/) and Martin Bromirski’s ANABA (http://anaba.blogspot.com/2009/06/philip-smith-responds.html) have all weighed in and added links to still more articles and blog entries. Paddy Johnson at Art Fag City has provided updates, and eventually Holland Cotter of The New York Times jumped on board, questioning some of the curator’s decisions with an insightful article titled “Framing the Message of a Generation”.
It’s About the Work
Despite my apparent ragging and an inherent fear of nostalgia (even for stuff I hated), I found The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 an innovative and important show for the Met, and though I’d appreciate further clarification from Eklund (as of this writing, e-mail requests have remained unanswered), I admit that curatorial practice, especially at this level, is fraught with hazards. I also believe that, like the creation of any artwork, a curator has a duty to pursue her or his own vision, without intimidation or threats of retribution. Any resulting controversy or debate is a healthy, welcome, and fun outcome. A few of the tantalizing questions raised by this mini-brouhaha are: Just what does it mean to be included or excluded from a major show at one of the country’s most prestigious museums? Like the statistics claiming someone who graduates college earns millions of dollars more than one who doesn’t, can we quantify how such an exhibition can increase an artist’s commercial and historical value over a lifetime, and after? How is this thing we call art history actually formed, and does curatorial license trump it? Whose voices are given credence, and are we entering a new phase? Are there factors beyond the artifacts themselves that carry greater import? (Statements have been made to the effect that Smith wasn’t really part of the clique, he didn’t toe the party line, hang out at the right clubs, suck up to the right “movers,” live in the right neighborhood, or have the right sexual orientation.) Is “official recognition” more important than being recognized by a community of your peers? Can the “alternative media” turn the status of refusé from a negative into a positive?
Just Tell the Truth
Most artists will never get the opportunity to have their work shown at the Met, and the last thing wanted by those that do is to cause trouble or ruffle feathers; consequently a lot of self-administered tongue biting goes on. I spoke briefly with Douglas Crimp at the press preview and he seemed slightly perplexed that a show he’d curated over thirty years ago was still seen as so “relevant.” Reticence, it seems, has kept him from expounding more fully on his thoughts regarding Smith. In a brief chat, Walter Robinson (someone I’d nominate for inclusion) seemed taken aback by the slim-to-nonexistent connections that some of the included artists and their work had to the core group or to the theme, but has politely and publicly refrained from commenting. Thomas Lawson, whose “Last Exit: Painting” is, besides Crimp’s “Pictures” essay, arguably the movement’s second “manifesto,” responded in an e-mail. “As for the Philip Smith question, the real investigation should look to the original sin—what prompted Doug Crimp to drop him from the revised essay when it was republished in October? My guess would be the disapproval of that dark prince, Jack Goldstein. Jack was very clear in his mind about what cut it and what didn’t, and he made his opinions known. If you take a look at Jack’s aesthetic it is clear he would have had no time for Philip’s. And I’m sure he told Doug that many times.”
So, as with many stories in our art world’s New Noir, we end up blaming the dead guy.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.