Los Angeles Letter:
Jules Olitski and Roy Lichtenstein
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
Too Much Monkey Business,
Too Much Monkey Business,
Too Much Monkey Business,
For me to be involved in.
(Copyright 1956 and 1965 by Arc Music Corp., N.Y.)
Which brings us to Jules Olitski and his leading critical advocate, Michael Fried. I figure any writer, especially an inescapably literate one such as Fried, can quote any of his heroes up front. The hero he picks, and which lines from the oeuvre of the master, may or may not have anything to do with the content of what follows, but at least they should provide some sort of poetic clue as to where the writer stands. This is particularly important when the writer is functioning as a critic, as Ezra Pound made clear many years ago. It is just this problem of "making clear" that again brings us around to Fried and Olitski.
The exhibition, Jules Olitski: Paintings 1963-1967, was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. This past summer it has been shown at the Pasadena Art Museum and it travels this fall to the San Francisco Museum of Art. Michael Fried contributed a comprehensive essay. Well, it is eight pages long; but it seems much longer indeed. Up front he quotes Wittgenstein :
. . . I say, however: if you talk about essence—you are merely noting a convention. But here one would like to retort: there is no greater difference than that between a proposition about the depth of the essence and one about—a mere convention. But what if I reply: to the depth that we see in the essence there corresponds the deep need for the convention.
Food for thought, I say. Even if one might not think, at first, that it has anything whatsoever to do with Olitski, with "modernist" painting, or with Art. Fried does indeed allude to both "depth" and "essence" in the text of his mystico-philosophical essay. But the real key to the real meaning (of the deep Wittgensteinian meaning—will the real Ludwig Wittgenstein please stand up ?) may perhaps be found in Olitski's title for one of the works in the exhibition: Deep Drag (1964).
In the end I think I might stick with Chuck Berry for relevance. Everyone likes to pick the winners. Chuck Berry is not only one of the superstar rock and roll musicians—he is also one of the great folk poets of our time. And this seems to be the realm in which painters have begun to wander in recent years; so they should be stacked up against the best. Frank Stella and J. Michael Egan as masters of the folk-poetic and irrelevant title were mentioned in a previous letter (Art International, Vol. XI, No.2, February 1967). Olitski enters the lists tentatively—sometimes one suspects his titles lapse into intentional, or worse descriptive, relevance: Pink Alert, for example, contains in the painting a predominating pink color. And colors appear in other titles with low-level aptness. This only makes one anxious about a clandestine iconography in the (grossly) red painting, Prince Patutsky's Command. Olitski transcends this referential element (or threat) in Patutsky in Paradise. But Olitski really dips back into earthly relevance with the titles that express the casually pervasive (essential ?) relationship of the fine arts today to popular music. Mojo Working goes straight to Jimmy Smith's I've Got My Mojo Working. It may even go back further, to Larry Bright's Mojo Workout. (The iconography of "mojo" extends back through the past of the Southern, American so-called Negro, probably to Haiti, where it was a sort of Voodoo brew used mostly by women, intended either to bring back an errant lover, or to get even with him so that he wouldn't be much good to any one else.) Not that Olitski or Fried have to worry about this. But some art historian, someday, may wonder. Variants and poetic license suggest possibilities for a feedback relationship. We may look forward to a recording of Bobby Bland or Little Junior Parker singing the Beatrice Blues. Maybe up in central Canada during the dance craze of the early 1960s, they were actually doing the "Doukhobor Twist". Shirley Ellis sang Nitty Gritty, although Olitski changed the spelling to NM Gritti, which was, perhaps, just a little too witti.
The paintings seen at Pasadena were not intended as a retrospective, but rather to emphasize Olitski's work of recent years with the spray gun. They offer a fair opportunity to grapple with Olitski's art on the two general levels of art historical significance and intrinsic aesthetic quality. With respect to the former criterion, writers on art usually, and quite wisely, apply these tactics: support in print, or at least tacit acceptance of the stature-claims—if there seems to be any chance that significance may loom up in time. If not, then there is the recourse of the withheld judgment. No one wants to be out-and-out wrong. But of course they still are—that is, those writers who cannot recognize that the present, or imagine that the future, will resolutely refuse to be circumscribed by the standards of the past. The same methodological hang-up—failure to grasp the changes from the past and the unique values of the present—also seriously limits the worth of judgments about intrinsic aesthetic quality. Indeed, in the minds of many writers, there seems to be little enough distinction made between these judgments at all. How difficult it is, after all, to really like an artist's work, while admitting its historical insignificance—difficult, that is, for those who prefer a lineal, sequential, cause and effect understanding of art history to a mosaic-type comprehension. For the former, history usually does prove difficult, to the extent that judgments of fortune and posterity do not concur with their own. On the other hand, the polarization of emphasis—concentrating too much upon either historical or intrinsic importance to the exclusion of the other—leads to the extremes of, on the one hand, the dull and pedantic chronicles of art history without critical intelligence, and on the other, the poetizing, self-indulgent enthusiasms of criticism as lyrical irrelevance. Michael Fried is one of the relatively few contemporary writers on art who is both smart enough and courageous enough to avoid these extremes. He makes rather bold claims for Olitski on both grounds, however, and he sees him as one of the three painters of the last dozen years "who rank with the supreme masters of color in modern art" (catalogue, p. 19).
Fried's commitment to Olitski is a follow-up to his inclusion in the important exhibition, Three American Painters, organized by Fried at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, in the spring of 1965—which also travelled to Pasadena. In the catalogue for this exhibition are some of the most stunningly apt characterizations of Olitski's art by Fried. True, they are introduced as caveats, but they include Fried's recognizing "a kind of handling that approaches self-indulgence", and Olitski's "combinations of colors which at first sight appear vulgar, over-pretty or garishly sentimental" (pp. 33, 35). He makes the telling observation that "Olitski is involved with taste in a way that Noland, among others, is not", while also noting that "when a painting of his fails, it most often does so by failing to overcome the banality of its constituents". In Friedian terms this might also be its failure to fulfill artistic pretensions as the anti-banality of its intent.
The three painters Fried sticks his neck out for are Olitski, Noland and Stella. In the two years since then, other painters have emerged with whom we might augment Fried's list of preeminent modernists. J. Michael Egan and Nick Boisvert are only two of the younger artists who have built upon the statements made by Noland and Stella, and extended them in several ways. Their "formal intelligence", and the "depth and sweep of feeling" this makes possible, present respectful challenges to the "preeminence among their contemporaries" of Noland and Olitski (Three American Painters, p.39). In more specific stylistic comparison to Olitski, for example, the work of Robert Irwin raises closely related, but more profound and complex formal problems. He solves them better too. Irwin's most recent disc paintings, exquisitely sprayed onto aluminium ground, are extraordinary achievements according to those very same criteria by which Olitski's work (as seen by Fried himself) produces only mixed results and sporadic success.
Fried's analysis of "visual time" in Olitski's work is reduced to being very nearly special pleading. Meanwhile it reveals a lineal, literate-visual, old-fashioned, fragmented and sequential orientation. But the visual arts don't all necessarily depend upon such perception or understanding. (Nick Boisvert is working toward total, instantaneous imagery.) The rather tired and simple-minded analogue to music as an essentially lineal medium ignores the total involvement of its psychological perception as well as the physical nature of sound—both of which helped lead Marshall McLuhan, for example, to different conclusions about the medium than those arrived at by Fried or implied in the painting of Olitski. In music itself, there are the impressive statements by a group from Houston that so far has played and recorded under the name "The Red Crayola". At this last summer's Berkeley Folk Music Festival, the three young musicians, Steve Cunningham, Mayo Thompson, and the artist Rick Barthelme performed several one-second pieces. Together with groups such as Country Joe and the Fish, the Velvet Underground, the San Francisco rock bands, or the more radical sounding post-Cage rock music of Joseph Byrd's and Michael Agnello's new group called " United States of America", the enveloping electric sound of that contemporary music which is alive makes Fried's understanding of music conceived as line-of-sight obsolete. It is instant and pervasive music in the twentieth century as a corollary of the aesthetic reasons for dropping the nineteenth-century obsession with the melodic line (from Cage, Coltrane and Coleman way back to Webern). What would help critical writing in both fields make more sense is a really fresh and demanding inquiry into parallel aesthetic phenomena and interrelationships of music and the visual arts. I'm not sure I could do it—anyway, this isn't the place. The point is that some important critical concepts raised in connection with Olitski's painting (involving time and space, perception and illusion) might suffer unwarranted dismissal because of weakness discovered in Fried's arguments or Olitski's work.
From the standpoint of historical significance, the spray paintings of Olitski are not impressive. There were a dozen painters in East Los Angeles already during the 1950s who, as surely as did Jules Olitski, opened up ways "to a primordial involvement with the sensuous nature of paint itself" (p.19). Historically these painters came first, even if they were working on cars instead of on canvas. Not only did they have a tremendous influence upon a whole artistic generation of West Coast artists (Billy Al Bengston, Ron Davis, Pat O'Neill, and many others, in addition to Irwin)—but also men-myths like Von Dutch Holland as painters, and Ed Roth or George Barris as designers, have conditioned the perceptual apparatus of a vast, nation-wide age group. Against the best of this work, Olitski's paintings take on an air of puerility and preciousness, seem to be full of Fine Art affectations, or at best are romantically retardataire. Since an ambitious case has been made for Olitski in the history of color handling and spray techniques, it is worth pointing out that he wasn't that early, nor has he proven to be that influential. It may also be that he just isn't that good.
The Pasadena exhibition leaves one wondering what might be Olitski's art historical relation to the color approach of, say, Mark Rothko. The problem of "image/imagelessness" might be considered as a living issue in terms of Rothko's immense and inspiring new series intended for the chapel of St. Thomas University in Houston—or, as explicitly raised by Irwin's sprayed discs. How does Olitski demand to be excluded from the arty, good-designy compulsion for taste that pervaded so much Abstract Expressionism, particularly in France during the 1950s ? Why do Olitski's big paintings deserve to be seen as anything more than commentaries on the work of Clyfford Still, with Still's gutsy edges now made soft and fuzzy, and the striking acerbic color now indeed "over-pretty and garishly sentimental" ? Why does Olitski paint frames around his non-images when they have frames anyway ? Does this tend to make him "naturalistic", with his painting like extensions of Turner watercolors ? Should we attempt to relate his masked spray paintings to works like Mark Tobey's Edge of August painted in 1953 ? Without by any means exhausting such questions we may ask finally where Olitski fits into the Red Dot theory (or, for the tachistes, it was a purple dot that, judiciously applied, could save almost any composition).
The other major exhibition at Pasadena during the summer was devoted to Roy Lichtenstein. Organized by John Coplans, who also wrote an intelligent catalogue essay, the net effects were very much more positive than with the Olitski show. With similar good sense, a full retrospective was not attempted. This raises an interesting point : in a sense, Lichtenstein's early painting, before 1961, really doesn't count at all. The pluralism of both market conditions and public sensibilities has made it easier for any artist to do what Fried sees as one of Olitski's preeminent achievements, " to change the look of his art both frequently and sweepingly" (p.5). Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock did .it too. The key now is the increased possibility for "rebirth". An artist can paint for years in one way, and then shift radically, in terms of style, or from medium to medium (like Yves Klein, or Andy Warhol). Throughout Lichtenstein's mature work, however, there is a remarkable stylistic consistency. There is a strength of vision and a brilliant inventiveness behind this—producing a coherent art no matter what the medium or the incidental subject matter. In one of the most valuable critical contributions of the catalogue, Coplans suggests that it is not the subject matter of Lichtenstein's work that is of first importance, despite its easy appeal to the common man, to writers, and to would-be iconographers. The paintings often do have an iconography, whether related to the popular arts (as in the "comic book" paintings) or to advertising images and techniques. But what is the iconography of a ball of twine ? Or that of a " Compositions" book, or a golf ball ? Yet these simple, single-image paintings have a disarming iconic power. Other works provide the fun of association: Trigger Finger relates to the tradition of the movie and TV Western (maybe archetypally, since it is quite impossible to say whether the gun belongs to Matt Dillon or Hopalong Cassidy). In the same kind of way, the "Brushstroke" paintings relate to the tradition of Abstract Expressionist art, devoid of either illustrative intent or specific references to the work of a particular artist, although in a de Kooning context. Where Lichtenstein's references to art are specific, as with the quasi-Picasso Woman With a Flowered Hat, or Portrait of Mrs. Cezanne, he is usually also making other, deeper statements about art and reality. The Portrait, for example, is obviously based upon a plate from Erle Loran's familiar book Cezanne's Composition (which fact has already produced some amusing repercussions). As Lichtenstein comments, "The Cezanne is such a complex painting. Taking an outline and calling it Madame Cezanne is in itself humorous, particularly the idea of diagraming a Cezanne when Cezanne said, '. . the outline escaped me'." It is just this emphatic use of outline that establishes close links between Lichtenstein's painting and the art of the comics. His approach is distinct from that of the American cartoonists, who were led to their style by the economics of the printing process. "The reason for the heavy outlines, of course, was partially for visibility and partially because the colors didn't separate very well. You could use the outline to 'fudge' over the incorrect color registration" (p.16). "Of course, when these things are done in painting it has another meaning because, obviously, they are not expedients" (p.12).
These techniques have led to the development of a form that is recognizable to the society for easily identifiable images. "But this kind of portrayal is so unreal when compared with the actual object . . . plus the fact that these portrayals are taken for real . . . In the picture the form becomes a purely decorative abstract object which everyone instantly recognizes . . . It becomes a very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original" (p. 12). The associations with the popular arts have, perhaps understandably, led many who are committed to the ideals of Fine Art to overlook some of the more or less purely aesthetic problems here. One of the strongest formal motivations for the so-called comic-book style, is its great sense of immediacy and total impact. This provides a firm critical basis, for example, upon which to relate the work of Lichtenstein and Nick Boisvert. Although the imagery used by Boisvert is very different (non-pictorial stripes and lines), there are close similarities in their common desire to create an instant, powerful response, and in their technique of using heavy black lines. The balance and order of Boisvert's concern appear perhaps in the visual content of Lichtenstein's Ball of Twine and as part of the subject matter in Portrait of Mrs. Cezanne. The tendency to use primary colors is also common, as Boisvert attempts bright paintings, with lots of "flash", like emblematic or heraldic devices that hit you all at once.
Roy Lichtenstein's Pasadena exhibition concentrated on paintings. Fortunately, however, it also included significant examples of kinetic seascapes, illuminated seascapes, banners, drawings, prints and posters. The seascapes involve a tour-de-force use of Rowlux, together with vinyl and Mylar. But of all the works, perhaps the paintings of various 1930s revival elements, presented as " Modern Paintings", are the most insidiously impressive. For reasons beyond its control, Pasadena was not able to include sculpture—although it might have been particularly rewarding to see Lichtenstein's big Modern Sculpture in this context, not to mention the brilliant Explosions. All the greater the disappointment then, when the Los Angeles County Museum's summer exhibition, American Sculpture of the Sixties, failed to include his sculpture (or that of any of the important " Pop" artists, with the exception of Claes Oldenburg).
The "interior architecture" of Lichtenstein is another matter. It could be seen in Aspen, Colorado, during mid-August, together with work by Oldenburg, Alan D'Arcangelo, Les Levine, and Dewain Valentine. As part of the Aspen Summer Festival of Contemporary Arts (inspired by John Powers, and including also a dance piece by Steve Paxton and movies by Stan Brackhage), Lichtenstein painted the interior of a room in a condemned building all white. He then "simplified" its architectural elements with heavy black outlines, effecting the same kind of transformations as in his paintings (vis-à-vis "Art" as in the Picasso or Cezanne subjects, or vis-a-vis reality as in the Golf Ball or Ball of Twine). There was also a wisp of painted steam rising above the radiator, " KLIK ! " by the light switch, "NOK! NOK ! " on one door, and "SLAM!" with painted "whooshes" on the other.
D'Arcangelo also expanded his painting at Aspen into the four-dimensional realm. On a flight of stairs painted macadam black, he laid down a double white line—receding into the distance apparently, when standing at the bottom, according to the same principles of fake perspective used by Bernini in the Scala Regia of the Vatican Palace. " Grass" grows alongside D'Arcangelo's superhighway stairs, and a painted blue sky with eternally fleecy white clouds hovers above.
Les Levine's sculptural-architectural statements are in the form of vacuum-shaped plastic elements, which can be assembled in various combinations in different contexts. The ideas behind Levine's approach have a good deal in common with those of fellow-Canadian lain Baxter—especially in the use of plastics, concepts of disposable art, and in the desire simply to provide the means with which people will create their own art and their own environments. Along these lines we may well consider both Levine and Baxter to be among the most radical and important artists at work today.
Dewain Valentine's pieces at Aspen represent a fruitful development and refinement of ideas already contained in sculptures that were included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The tilting discs become more exquisite as Valentine's sense of precision and finish become articulated—without losing their boldness of conception, or the drama of their scale. Steve Paxton's piece " Sizes" produced not only an evening of theater-dance, but also a supersized map of the state of Utah, drawn on the floor by the group of performers to the accompaniment of cryptic readings, dressings and undressings. Oldenburg was represented by five drawings and a model for a foot pedal—and by his executive talents displayed in organizing events from exhibitions to baseball games with soft Oldenburg bats.
The creative ferment of the Los Angeles scene over the last few years has been undoubtedly catalyzed by institutions outside (or on the edge) of the Fine Art world of galleries and museums. The entertainment industry, with movies, TV, music and sometimes theater, forms a major clement in the West Coast context, along with the conditioning force of advertising and freeways, the combination of sun, oranges and surfing to accent physical health, and 24-hour drug stores. None of this can be forgotten for long here. But one of the more recent institutions, and more directly related to the arts, is Gemini Press, one of the finest lithographic studios in the world. Two major projects have commanded Gemini's facilities for the better part of 1967. One of these is the "Booster" series by Robert Rauschenberg. The final image in this series is close to being the largest hand-pulled, fine-art lithograph ever produced (some by Toulouse-Lautrec claim a few more square inches, although Rauschenberg's, at 72 ", I believe are longer).
Together with seven studies, the "Booster" print is a major achievement in contemporary graphic art—both creatively, and in terms of its technical production. On this basis, it would seem to deserve a separate account with full discussion of developments in imagery and techniques, and with appropriate illustration.
The other project at Gemini involves work of the same high quality, but with less dramatic technical demands. Working at Gemini for a period of several months, Frank Stella created two large prints entitled Star of Persia I & II. The stars are composed of eight chevrons with their tips touching. Each print is a seven-color lithograph of the same shape, but with different colors. Metallic inks for this project were specially developed by Gemini's director, Ken Tyler, in conjunction with Stella. The delicacy and precision of execution is so fully attained that even Stella's thin pencil lines in the white areas between stripes of the chevrons are reproduced accurately as part of the composition. Another part of Stella's work there is Black Series I, recently completed—with a Black Series II currently in progress. Printed on tinted paper, in dark grey ink (again carefully and newly developed), the medium of lithography has been stretched to give certain aspects of the prints the qualities of drawings. The scale of images is radically reduced when compared to that of the original black-stripe paintings. But it is to these earlier works that Philip Leider necessarily compares the lithos in his introductory note to the folio:
The formal consistency and structural solidity of Frank Stella's black-stripe paintings of 1959-60 were understood then, and in many circles continue to be understood today, to have been bought at a price of iconic emptiness. Derived almost as a consequence of an overriding cluster of formal concerns—that an abstract painting really be abstract, that a flat painting really be flat, that a picture surface really be a surface—the iconic power of the images themselves was either not felt at all, or quite neglected. Paradoxically, the success of Stella's formal thoroughness obscured the fundamental fact that the decisions were made in the first place towards the end of creating convincing pictures. Now, almost a decade later, it is the iconic strength of the images themselves that permit them to become the subject matter of a series of extraordinarily beautiful and moving lithographs.
With the scheduled installation of a new, really huge lithographic press, who can tell what other stars Gemini might lure to the LA area.
Frank Stella also enjoyed inclusion in the exhibition Three American Painters. That section of Michael Fried's catalogue essay devoted to his work remains one of the best critical evaluations—together with the typically brilliant essay by Robert Rosenblum, "Frank Stella: Five Years of Variations on an ' Irreducible' Theme", in Artforum, Vol. 3, No.6, March 1965. The prints of Black Series I carry Rosenblum's variations forward a few more years. Fried also makes the important point about Stella and other modernist painters "thinking and working in terms of series of paintings" (p. 45). And like Leider (but more fully because of the space afforded by the different occasion), Fried deals with Stella's pictorial qualities and values. This should balance out, to some extent, the comments offered earlier about his regard for and treatment of Olitski. Fried's writing raises intelligent problems (far beyond whether one happens to like Stella, Olitski, both or neither). Since coming across one of these problems in the usual art writing is so infrequent, and despite the fact that Fried's prose style makes one work like hell for it, he is a writer and critic with whom one must come to terms. His most incisive writing may be in the footnotes, displaying an intellectual commitment to academic apparatus that a is perhaps unnecessary; and his most seductive writing (intimidating ludicrous for the mentally vulgar, perhaps) betrays and equally unnecessary commitment to an old-fashioned notion of Fine Art. But he fairly states some of the most important problems of contemporary criticism, and their relationship to art and to writing about art.
Having quoted from one my heroes up front, it seems fitting to conclude with some choice words from another. This is what Marshall McLuhan had to say about criticism in 1951 (" Money in Comics", 'The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, The Vanguard Press, N.Y.). This not only brings us back again to Chuck Berry (and to why he should be quoted in such an article) ; it also ties in with Lichtenstein and his sources, evaluations of Stella Olitski, the promise of younger artists such as Egan and Boisvert, the broadening bases for the arts in general, and in particular the writings of Fried and others.
One function of the critic is to keep the best work free from the surrounding clutter. But, in order to free the mind from the debilitating confusion, it is not enough to claim priority for excellence without considering the bulk which is inferior.
. . . And in the course of doing this one finds that the great work of a period has much in common with the poorest work. The air of unreality which has hovered over the little magazine coterie culture in general is due to their neglect of the close interrelations between the good and the bad work of the same period.
. . . The great artist necessarily has his roots very deep in his own time—roots which embrace the most vulgar and commonplace fantasies and aspirations.
Or, as Chuck would say from his rather different cultural point of view:
Well, if you feel you like it, go get your lover,
Then reel and rock it, roll it over,
Then move on up just a trifle further,
Then reel and rock with one another,
ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN . . .
(C. 1956, 1964 and 1965 by Arc Music Corp., N.Y.)
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the October, 1967 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-69.