Working my way through college on demolition jobs back in the Seventies, one day I had the honor of doing something more constructive.
Since the end of spring term, I’d been swinging a sledge hammer at walls and pulling down ceilings from behind a face mask, hauling away rubble in wheelbarrows to make way for renovations, when the contractor paying Detroit union wages awakened me from my hard-hat drudgery to take part in the installation of Louise Nevelson’s Bendix Trilogy (1979).
The massive work, commissioned by the Bendix Corporation (an aeronautics giant) and composed of three distinct elements in steel and aluminum, arrived that morning at the corporate headquarters in more pieces than that. Crane operators, gas welders, and concrete pourers tried making sense of it all while I helped in my limited, unskilled, summer-job way with shovel, broom, and hose. In years to come, Bendix would be merged, split, and re-born in many forms. The Trilogy passed hands and changed locations. But I will always own the day something monumental left its imprint on me.
Who knew that not long after graduation I’d be seated before the desk of Hilton Kramer, a close friend of Nevelson, discussing, line by line, my first critical essay on the arts? Hilton was unlike the many slick, fast-talking editors I’d confront later, those with the false modesty to believe it was their duty, their right, to put a “spin” on all they touched, even drawing their own conclusions, often without approval, and still using the author’s byline for work that went to print as though written by a stranger. I was spoiled early on by this member of a vanishing race, an editor who actually respected that the writer, like the artist, knew quite well what he was doing, but sometimes, yes, appreciated input.
Soon Hilton would interview Nevelson as part of an award ceremony at the Guggenheim, and they returned to that age-old riddle of creation. The artist, seated under hot lights in her opulent eyelash extensions, bristling fur coat, and towering fur hat, was humble in explaining her compositions of “found” objects. She borrowed, by way of analogy, a piece of wood she might have picked up from the street in front of her house, after it had been run over by countless cars, each of these leaving “imprints” and making a “statement” to which she, admittedly, could lay no claim. “People feel that the artist must do everything,” she said, adding that so many artists, even at that late date in 1986, were caught up in the vanity of “boasting they did this and they did that,” of knowing that blue and yellow made green. “You don’t have to do everything by hand,” she declared in a way that might seem quaint in our more fully digital age.
“I feel the recognition of what you see is as important as what you do,” she proclaimed more presciently, hinting at both the role of aesthetic judgment and the impossibility of creating in a vacuum. “When you talk about Mexico or you talk about other things, when you live through all these periods, they become assimilated. They become part of you. And then you can see one world, one place. You don’t have to have the visions.”
Hilton knew better. “Well, it all depends on who finds the found object,” he interjected, eliciting a friendly laugh. It also depends, I might add, on what the finder chooses to do with the found object, which should go without adding.
Not to dwell on Louise Nevelson’s or Hilton Kramer’s ideas on art, casting the net wider, I can’t help but suspect, in these tit-for-tat times of finger-pointing at “appropriation,” that soon the artist and writer, rather than drawing freely and unselfconsciously from a world of forms and ideas that no one actually owns, will be held accountable for every single influence and artifact, told to document the paltriest pixel, atom, and piece of string, expected to trace the provenance of anything old, new, borrowed, or blue, and prove rightful ownership or face the public’s wrath. This, indeed, is where things are headed. Leaders of this new purge have so far lacked the vision, not the appetite, but given time will one day stumble on an obvious target: collage, or the broader category of assemblage art.
They’ll see no irony in having appropriated “appropriation,” a politically neutral, art-historical term referring to collage and assemblage art. A falser modesty, in my humble opinion, than the belief that no one individual can take full credit for any new arrangement of matter or symbols, is this compulsive new mandate that only people with the proper credentials can refer to arrangements past, themselves hybrids, as everything is at the end of the day. Soon the artist (or, for that matter, anyone with something spontaneous or original to say) will lose, in the name of some notion of purity and collective identity, the right to create without consensus. The result won’t be the cultural mosaic that was planned, but a superficial diversity more like cloisonné, a pre-approved grid with each cell contained neatly from the next in a metal enclosure. Items found will be suspected stolen, and art will be overrun by accountants and ambulance chasers.
Rather than reduce creation to a matter of mine-or-yours or representation, I’ve always been the most moved by work that dares to break free from constraints, erasing origins and getting beyond all that. Aimed at giving forms new life, perhaps new meaning, the abstract collage artist’s mark lies somewhere on a spectrum between passive non-intervention and a passionate embrace of all resources. Surveying, collecting, and constructing require industry, skill, and taste. One artist conducts cranes to compose, by trial and error, in gigantic metal castoffs with purposes long lost. Another leaves fingerprints while cutting, tearing, drawing, painting, layering, removing—in what order or media we need not care—spinning the world into a tiny aperture onto sublime beauty. The artist as craftsman and connoisseur. No line between knowing what to do and deciding what to keep.