“We are deceived,” began my first draft. As an undergraduate in English at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, my senior year, I’d charged into an essay on the Abstraction of Commerce, pitting neo-geo’s Peter Halley against my new Gramscian hero, Allan Sekula. Mercifully, months and drafts later, I’d toned down my invective—which George Dimock, the always tactful art historian, said almost touchingly reminded him of a more militant era of criticism—the one, not coincidentally, in which Sekula cut his teeth. It is not, after all, that era; leftists rarely come out swinging—and it’s just as militant, in the end, to slip in the knife while you’re staring your foe in the face. But I had to start somewhere. “Should I read Marx?” I asked. “No. Read Sekula.”
To be fair, Halley didn’t stand a chance—because no painter is Allan, and few economists and fewer artists understood abstraction as well as he—and, as intuitively, appreciated the plight of the “figures” obscured by “non-figurative” art. Who are all these folks, I thought, who have such an easy time ignoring—or worse, denying—the more or less capitalist underpinnings of their careers? Opposite Allan’s Fish Story, the cover of which features graphic stacks of shipping containers cutting through the world ocean, I staged a late Halley, a Day-Glo Six Prisons—a grid of horizontal blocks resembling, as the painter once put it, “the misty space of Rothko … walled up.” But this was much worse than Rothko, I thought—because Halley got it: his neo-geo moneymakers actually banked on cynical in-jokes—coded Foucauldian diagrams, emblems of various modular forms of control—as if some gullible exec would hang, over the proverbial couch, some prison cells, or a microprocessor, or even—as I interpreted Halley through Sekula—a stack of containerized goods. Not full of minor drug offenders and minorities, though; not cranked out in a factory lined with suicide nets; and surely not stuffed with the anonymized (abstracted) cut-rate products of sweltering special economic zones.
No—that was Sekula territory. Allan was an incisive critic and activist, and did not take compromise lightly, and did not compromise his ideals. After Allan passed away last year, I realized I had taken this for granted—that, though I might dabble in less than rigorous thought, though I might even get caught up in trends, or even trendy painting, there would always be Allan Sekula, holding down the fort, keeping the fire burning for us wayward leftists. Call it guilt, or call it a haunting. The force of his work once more came to bear on mine, as if admonishing, reasserting, on principle, a version, complicated by experience, of that polar diptych: the commerce of abstraction, the abstraction of commerce.
I still write about paintings from time to time—and not just paintings: abstract ones—and maybe, I’ll admit, I’ve come around on Halley. (As the lesser of painting’s evils, perhaps? Is some Foucault better than none?) Yet I’m pursued by a Sekulan idealism. Not that Allan was the monolithic antidote to globalization’s ills. He could be goofy, indulgent, boring—human—like the rest of us. And for that: present, engaged, curious about people, invested in the world. Beyond the frivolity of the art market or the numbing sludge of popular culture or the pageantry of politics as usual—or even the dogma of the art-theoretical complex—that human investment, simply, is the gauntlet he threw down. There are worse specters, surely, than that of the “we” who are deceived.
Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles. He is a 2013 recipient of the Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. He edits the artist-run journal of art Prism of Reality.