Dec/Jan 2008

Framing the Question

Three books chart divergent art-historical approaches


ERIC BANKS on ANI BOYAJIAN and MARK RUTKOSKI's Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné

We tend to remember the painter Stuart Davis as a notable figure in the American art world spanning the Ash Can School and the Park Avenue Cubists, that prelapsarian period antedating the irruptive force of Abstract Expressionism and the surging currents of artmaking that followed. Like many on-the-fly judgments, this one is correct in at least one sense: Davis did experience most of the high-water moments of the New York art world from 1913, when the Armory Show introduced its viewers to the exciting developments taking place overseas, until his death in 1964. In fact, it may come as a surprise to learn that Davis exhibited five watercolors in the Armory Show at the tender age of twenty—he had left high school at sixteen to study at the Robert Henri Art School under the tutelage of the Ash Can veteran. In addition, of course, to the low-life culture of the saloons and the razzle-dazzle of the Tin Pan Alley jazz he absorbed during his nightly trolls of New York, Newark, and Hoboken, nothing shook him so much as the work he saw on view in 1913. He called its effect on him "a bomb."

Davis might have used the same explosive metaphor to describe the catalogue raisonné devoted to his work, a three-volume bazooka just published by Yale University Press. In it, editors Ani Boyajian and Mark Rutkoski have catalogued 1,749 artworks by the artist, including more than 600 that have never previously been illustrated. The editors, along with contributors William C. Agee and Karen Wilkin (who have provided comprehensive and highly readable essays), had a further ten thousand pages of notes to sort through by Davis, who compulsively wrote on his theories of color and space, his intimacy with drawing ("A Drawing / is the correct title for my work," he noted in 1954), and his infatuation with the hustle and bustle of the urban environment. The result is a sweeping document that brings to new light often-overlooked aspects of his work.

Stuart Davis, Combination Concrete #2, 1956–58, oil on canvas.

Take mural making, for example. The catalogue raisonné makes a strong claim for the significance of Davis's little-seen murals, the earliest of which is the delirious dispatch of unhinged words he painted in 1921 on the walls of a friend's candy store (The Nut House) in Newark. Fortunately, a couple of photos survive to document the work, which is not the case for the 45-by-140-foot History of Communication he made for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Other murals were dispersedone that was commissioned for a new housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wound up at the Indiana University Art Museum instead. At least one project, Men Without Women, executed for the men's lounge at Radio City Music Hall, is on semipermanent loan (from moma) there. Davis's friend Meyer Schapiro described one of the murals as a "brass band."

These are among the revelations provided by this compilation, which documents in detail Davis's engagement with the art of Picasso, Braque, the deadpan Picabia of the late 1910s, and above all Mondrian (like Broadway Boogie Woogie, Davis's final painting includes a strip of masking tape, near which he wrote the word fin), as well as that of his contemporaries Charles Sheeler, John Graham, and Gerald L. K. Morris. Second only to a curator, an author of a catalogue raisonné is in the great position of being able, well after the fact, to make all the important comparisons and discoveries about influence, stylistic and otherwise. (This is no doubt one of the potentially joyous aspects of practicing art history.) Like the write-up of yesterday's baseball game, where an arbitrary call or a dropped fly ball that was perhaps of random significance as the game unfolded takes on the character of epic decisiveness when fitted into the coherent narrative of today's sports page, the catalogue raisonné as a genre forces us to see not only the final score but what happened in the locker room afterward. In Davis's case, we're offered not just the well-rehearsed lines about the proto-Pop artist whose handling of the language of advertising anticipated '60s style but also a reminder of what he came to mean for Hard-Edge colorists like Al Held, Kenneth Noland, and others. (Incidentally, Davis's versatility with words extended to his titles, which pack hipster lyricism into such examples as The Mellow Pad, Owh! in San Pão, Colonial Cubism, and Punch Card Flutter #3.)

Of The Mellow Pad, Davis wrote that his objective was "that all parts be of equal, objective intensity." He hoped to do so with a painterly language comprising "unprimed facts" and "solid certainties," as Elaine de Kooning commented, keying the unlikely affinity between Davis and, say, Marianne Moore, with her pursuit of plain American language and fake gardens. De Kooning: In his work there is "nothing superficial" and "everything necessary." This lavish boxed set of volumes presents ample testimony to the rightness of her judgment. Reviewing a late show of Davis's in 1962, Donald Judd wrote, "Davis at 67 is still a hotshot." Staying hot for fifty-plus years is hard work, but Davis did so, in his very own way.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum.

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KATY SIEGEL on MARK GODFREY's Abstraction and the Holocaust

After the 1973 coup in Chile, Philip Guston reflected, "Our whole lives (since I can remember) are made up of the most extreme cruelties of holocausts. We are the witnesses of the hell." The violent struggles of the early '70s—in Central America, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in the United States itself—were partly responsible for pushing Guston away from abstract painting, after twenty-odd years, to a new, bluntly figurative mode.

For Guston, abstraction seemed inadequate to the shocking political situation less for any essential failing than for its success, for the fact that it had become business as usual. Thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, his colleague Barnett Newman felt the same way about representation, the absurdity of painting "a woman, a cello." A new kind of nonprogrammatic abstraction seemed the right response to the horrors of that war. Was this, too, a reaction against the past, or did artists see some intrinsic quality that made abstraction appropriate to that conflict's pressures and revelations?

In Abstraction and the Holocaust, Mark Godfrey tackles the problem with intelligent sensitivity. Examining the history of abstract art's engagement with the Nazis' programmatic extermination of Jews, he addresses specific bodies of work by Newman, Morris Louis, Beryl Korot, and others, concluding with Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Susan Hiller's The J. Street Project. Each chapter delves into the genesis, realization, and interpretation of particular artworks.

As much as he attends to the details of artistic production, Godfrey's starting point is the theoretical problem of "art after Auschwitz," in its vulgar and disturbing shorthand. He deftly clarifies Theodor Adorno's too often quoted and too little understood statements about what the depredations of fascism meant for creative activity, insisting that Adorno did not see abstraction as proper to the post-Holocaust crisis of art and noting the contradictions and shifts in Adorno's thinking on the subject.

Godfrey brings a considered approach to art; it is both welcome and unusual for a book on a historical subject not only to excavate but to evaluate particular artworks. He explains how repetition in Korot's video can become "fussy" and explicates the unresolved relationship between certain aspects of the Eisenman memorial. These criticisms are convincing, and through his lucid and sometimes brilliant writing, Godfrey animates his own experiences of the works.

Sometimes, however, the emphasis tilts too far away from historical concerns. The introduction acknowledges that "the Holocaust" as a proper noun, a singular event separated from Hiroshima, Stalingrad, and World War II as a whole, developed over time. But while Godfrey tells us that these changes affected art, that history does not appear to have shaped the book in a significant way. He also treats the artists unevenly; while he deals seriously with Newman's and Louis's Jewishness, he only mentions the background of some later artists in passing.

To a certain extent, Godfrey's history is still doctrinaire art history; there is far less Norman Finkelstein here than there is Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, etc. Nonetheless, Godfrey significantly breaks with conventional modernist accounts in actively engaging a social subject and in redefining abstraction as more capacious and complex than streamlined. And by introducing artists such as Korot and Hiller, he disturbs the fiction of a main bloodline coursing through art; in the process, he creates a new historical model.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the chapters on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Eisenman memorial—subjects outside the usual modernist canon—are the strongest. Here Godfrey seems to feel the freest, embracing many voices and more social history and developing a full, conflicted picture of the issues at stake. His accounts are gripping, seamlessly combining the debates and desires of the fractured Jewish and artistic communities with the complex phenomenologies of the museum and the memorial themselves.

For Guston, the annihilation of European Jews was a terrible event in a century of terrible events, connected to the suffering of African Americans and the televised massacres of his late middle age. For artists more explicitly concerned with the Holocaust in particular, Godfrey manages to capture the specificities of its meanings, as well as the generality of its horror. His contribution, beyond his scholarly research and critical assessments, is his insistence that abstraction embodies the absoluteness of the material world (whether authentic or brutal) while also creating space for allusion, and even transcendent feeling.

Katy Siegel is associate professor of art history at Hunter College, CUNY.

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GREGORY WILLIAMS on CLAUDIA MESCH and VIOLA MICHELY's Joseph Beuys: The Reader

In their introduction to Joseph Beuys: The Reader, editors Claudia Mesch and Viola Michely describe Beuys as "an artist of the penumbra." While acknowledging his still-sizable reputation, they rightly explain that Beuys (1921–86) has never been easy to place within the modern or postmodern lineages of significant postwar artists. The varied and conflicting facets of his prolific career, which engaged drawing, sculpture, performance, teaching, and political activism, cannot be reconciled into a cohesive artistic vision, thereby potentially stranding his work in the shadows of art history.

In the two decades since Beuys's death, his critical fortunes have waxed and waned. This new anthology represents a welcome attempt to give a broad yet nuanced picture of his work and life. In its generous scope, it covers far more ground than the previous English-language anthology, Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (2001), edited by Gene Ray. Though still highly useful, the papers in that collection, which stemmed from a conference on the artist, make for a relatively circumscribed conversation. This new collection is more thorough both in its organizational structure and in its function as a historical record.

In the editors' well-researched introduction, readers trying to get a handle on Beuys are given a lucid summary of the controversies surrounding his work, the divergent responses on both sides of the Atlantic, and the ways in which his interpreters have attempted to situate him in various camps (modernist or postmodernist, shaman or charlatan, activist or opportunist). For their part, Mesch and Michely locate Beuys in the interstices of modernism, identifying in his practice the seeds of a revisionist history of the twentieth century that embraces contradiction and eschews "diachronic models of art history." They see Beuys as operating prior to postmodernism, in that he continues the prewar tradition of the "engaged modernist avant-garde." In this way, they take sides in the debate over whether Beuys was part of an effective, critical neo-avant-garde.

Favoring evenhandedness, the editors include not especially praiseful responses to Beuys first published in English: Stefan Germer's assessment of Beuys's relationship with Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers, Thierry de Duve's portrayal of Beuys as a false proletarian, and, of course, Benjamin Buchloh's notorious "Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol" (1980), the scathing attack on the 1979 Guggenheim retrospective that heavily colored the subsequent reception of the artist in the United States. Germer's and de Duve's essays appeared in October, a consistent platform for Beuys dissenters. To the above essays is added October cofounder Rosalind Krauss's dismissive (Beuys as the anti-Bataille) "No to . . . Joseph Beuys" (1997) from her Formless: A User's Guide, written with Yve-Alain Bois. The negative October consensus on Beuys is crucial to include in such an anthology, but as the other contributions demonstrate, it is hardly the dominant international perspective.

The remaining texts are generally balanced in their judgment of Beuys, even if an underlying healthy skepticism can be said to link the distinct approaches. Where this collection truly breaks new ground is in the translation of several essays and interviews first published in German. Of particular rele­vance for the editors, two entries by the literary theorist Peter Bürger update his own controversial appraisal of the neo-avant-garde, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), through a discussion of Beuys. Having since tempered his refusal of the possibility of reviving the social and political aims of the historical avant-garde, Bürger ("In the Shadow of Joseph Beuys: Remarks on the Subject of Art and Philosophy Today" [1987]) finds a degree of honesty in Beuys's "consciously contradictory self-definition as simultaneously artist and non-artist." For Bürger, Beuys's "theory" of the avant-garde clings tenuously to the utopian theory of the prewar avant-garde even as it acknowledges its failings.

Two of the texts allow Beuys to speak for himself—transcripts of the recorded comments from his Office for Direct Democracy at Documenta 5 in 1972 and of a 1983 discussion following his unsuccessful attempt to run for parliament as a Green Party candidate. The latter shows Beuys's willingness to undergo an awkward process of public critique that resulted from the cult of personality he famously nurtured. Another benefit of The Reader is the good deal of attention paid to Beuys's objects, writings, and actions (see especially the texts by Mesch, Antje von Graevenitz, Dorothea Zwirner, and Eugen Blume), which downplays the biographical while striking a balance with the need to keep his self-promotion firmly in mind. It is this sense of equitability that will make this book required Beuys reading for a long time to come and may even help save him from eventual obscurity.

Gregory Williams is assistant professor of art history at Boston University.

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