Art of Our Time is a grandiose title for the four-volume catalogue of the collection of Charles and Doris Saatchi, who live in London, but this collection lives up to it.1 The collection, which includes over four hundred and fifty works by fifty-one artists, is composed principally of Minimalism, and a little bit of Pop art, and more recent work, which has been called Neo-Expressionist, or Image, art. This is work by, among others, Philip Guston, Julian Schnabel, Joel Shapiro, David Salle, Anselm Kiefer, and Sigmar Polke. The collection is a record of a shift in the way the generation of the 1960s and the present-day generation think about art—and about themselves. It takes us from a shallow-spaced and gleaming, smooth-surfaced art to an art of porous surfaces, flickering light, and a shifting space. It takes us from an art that prided itself on being immediately “readable” and clear—and, also, rather distant—to an art that is pleased to be ambiguous, that asks to be interpreted in different ways simultaneously. The past seven or so years have been a very free, undoctrinaire period for painting and sculpture. European painting is more innovative now than it has been in years, and, for the first time, the strongest European and American artists have a comradely closeness in their attitudes. There have been important shows of this new art (the best have been in Europe), yet no museum has presented it with the scope that can be seen in these volumes. And what makes the Saatchi collection unique is that the Saatchis have assembled this new work along with the work that, so to speak, fathered it.
There is something off-putting, though, about how they have gone about things. Charles Saatchi is Saatchi & Saatchi Compton, Ltd., an English advertising firm whose best-known client is Margaret Thatcher. Doris Saatchi is American and writes for art and travel magazines. They are contemporary versions of the Arensbergs (who collected the advanced art of the Teens and Twenties) and the Sculls (who collected in the Sixties). The difference is that the Saatchis aren’t gentle encouragers, or enthusiastic appreciators, of the new. They are more impersonal, professional, and self-effacing. They have chosen an immodest title for these books of their collection. (It’s peculiar to attach any title to a collection other than one’s name.) Yet there isn’t a scrap of writing by, or about, them anywhere in the four volumes; they never actually state what their aims are. It is clear, though, that they are after the major works by the leading artists of the day. Essentially, they want to be their own Museum of Modern Art, and it’s astounding to think of two individuals having such an ambition. (Unlike the Modern, they aren’t interested in drawings, prints, or sketches; at least, few of them are illustrated in the catalogues.)
What makes the Saatchi collection unique is that the Saatchis have assembled this new work along with the work that, so to speak, fathered it.
This past spring, they opened, in London, a public museum for the collection, which will be presented in separate units, each on view for a number of months. The museum—its address is 98A Boundary Road—is made up of five enormous connecting rooms and is set on one floor, with some rooms stepped up. (The building was formerly a paint storage warehouse.) There is no seating of any kind, the light includes natural lighting, the steel girders are exposed, the floor is a painted gray cement. The proportions of the rooms are a touch too long, low, and spread out, and the space—the architect was Max Gordon—has a stiff and awkward but organic quality. At the first show, which closed in the fall of 1985 and was made up chiefly of works by Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Brice Marden, and Cy Twombly, the building overwhelmed the art.
The Saatchis’ catalogues are of a piece with their museum. These large-size but easily handled volumes are oddly official and ostentatiously plain. The texts, which are about the individual artists, are by numerous critics and art historians, including Peter Schjeldahl, Hilton Kramer, Rudi Fuchs, Robert Rosenblum, Kim Levin, Phyllis Tuchman, and Michael Auping. There are sensitive descriptions and perceptions throughout, and Schjeldahl (especially on the Minimalists and Warhol), Kramer (especially on Schnabel), and Fuchs (on Polke) are particularly good. Kramer and Schjeldahl have doubts about some of the artists they write about, and it is a tribute to the Saatchis that these writers have been allowed to retain their doubts. But most of the writing is not on their level, and the mere sight of all these appreciative-historical-critical pieces, set at the beginning of each volume, is cramping. Every artist is given a sort of art-historical pat of approval. The whole art world has been attended to and is reporting in.
In their desire to marshal the field of developing art, the Saatchis, one can feel, have trampled some of the real art out of everything. And yet they are in tune with a key element of some of the best work of the past twenty-five years. They are in rune with its confidence, its almost belligerent belief in its history and importance.
The first two volumes of Art of Our Time cover the Minimalists, and the Saatchis must have one of the finest collections of this art in the world. Here are choice works by Judd, Marden, Robert Ryman, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Agnes Martin, and Carl Andre, plus top examples by artists who, older than, or not quite associated with, the Minimalists, fit in a Minimalist setting: Warhol, Twombly, Eva Hesse, Richard Artschwager, Frank Stella, Lucas Samaras. Many of the most influential figures of American—and world—art of the last two decades are here.
In the past few years, with the deluge of ingratiating, movie-inspired, and cartoonlike painting in the galleries and art magazines—paintings of angelic and heroic figures who float through the sky or dart through space like Batman—a viewer may have thought longingly about Minimalism, about how refreshing its cool, blank, uningratiating spirit would appear now. But looking at the Minimalist works in the Saatchi catalogues, and at the first show at their museum, I have to say that for me, at least, the time hasn’t come. Twenty years ago, Minimalism was certainly the leading avant-garde style; but Minimalism lacks the figure, and so, in retrospect, it seems related primarily to landscape, architecture, and design. Minimalist paintings and sculptures have the same effect on me as Impressionist pictures; I respect them, but when I’m in a museum I have to force myself to spend time with them. The Minimalists are a lot like the Impressionists. They’re both pioneering yet emotionally undeveloped movements. They are both about pure sensation: the look and feel of color, weather, light, different materials. The Impressionists and the Minimalists are portrayers of the classic norm of things. Both seemed arrogant to their first audiences because the artists said, in effect, “We're not interested in people, or emotions. That has been done.”
And Donald Judd, the pre-eminent Minimalist, reminds me of Winslow Homer, who, though not exactly an Impressionist, also painted the appearance of everyday, outdoor life. Homer is a superb picture-constructor. He is an artist of a clean cool breeze whom you like to turn to now and then, but he doesn’t deliver a complicated message. He is strong because he avoids certain emotions. Judd is strong in a similar way. One feels with both that here is the work of a manly man, a kind of bachelor artist, who is, surprisingly, in love with style for itself—and who may not realize how stylish his work is. One believes that neither artist is aware of how much we are drawn to his work because of its sheer dapper elegance.
There is conviction to Judd’s art of geometrical purity and sleek industrial materials—to his boxes that sit on the floor or are stacked on a wall. His color can be smolderingly handsome, especially when, in an untitled piece, he brings copper together with glowing red-orange plexiglas. He looks best when his entire range of work can be seen at the same time, when a viewer can get the look and feel of raw, dry galvanized aluminum; copper; polished, shiny aluminum; tropical blue and aquarium-green plexiglas; unpainted pale tan plywood. His most recent work—pieces that were exhibited last year and are not in Art of Our Time—adds a new note to his repertoire. They are large rectangular metal boxes, made of many interlocking units, which are painted in muted yellows, oranges, pinks, and blacks—varsity colors. And Judd has been a real presence on the art scene for more than twenty years. He is a highly competitive and—at least as a writer—a ruthless soul; he is devoted to the highest standards of creativity. In his art criticism (which he stopped doing full time in the Sixties) and in his sculpture, he stands on the field like a tough drill sergeant, impossible to please. His work says to fellow artists, “Can your work be this tough? Can you do it without laying on an ounce of charm? I did.” Judd is, one can believe, a distillation of an arrogant, nervously self-confident time in American art: the era of the Abstract Expressionists and their admirers, who watched Paris decline as the capital of world-class art and believed that the torch had been passed to them. Judd’s objects are the epitome of a purely aesthetic way of looking at the world. There are, of course, more than purely formal qualities in his work and in Minimalism. But to our eyes, now, they are buried and stunted.
Andy Warhol, though, looks fresh in the pages of Art of Our Time.
Andy Warhol, though, looks fresh in the pages of Art of Our Time. He looks better than any artist of the Sixties. (It should be noted that the collection includes no work by, among others, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, or Jasper Johns.) As Peter Schjeldahl points out in his catalogue essay, Warhol was at his best practically right at the start, when he was in his early thirties, between roughly 1962 and 1965 (which is when most of the Warhols in the collection are from). Warhol was an original artist when Kennedy was president and right after, and his pictures are an expression of that time. The early Sixties were like a debutantes’ ball for this country. It was a moment when the country took on a more sophisticated sense of itself, after Ike’s sleepy reign, and Warhol was the guy who loved the party the most and was still high during the crash that came the next morning.
His pictures of the time are his most well known: paintings based on images taken from newspaper photos, which he silk-screened onto canvas and then colored in. Looked at now, his Marilyns, Elvises, Lizes, and mourning Jackies, and his car crash, tuna fish can disaster, wanted man, atomic bomb, and electric chair paintings present, with an audacious directness, some of the most glamorous and tragic (and laughable) themes of American life. With their all-pervasive silvery, metallic colors, and with bits of bright red and turquoise and yellow floating on the silvery expanses, there’s something sleek and alienating about these pictures. Yet they’re shabbily sad, too. Seeing one is like passing a construction-site wall that has been plastered with row after row of the same announcement for a long-gone event. Warhol’s paintings are like Walker Evans’s photos of street posters from the Thirties come alive, and the mood of that decade—of the Depression—adds a bass note to his art. Warhol was born in 1930, and his work is a kind of commentary on a Thirties sense of things. His most wanted men, auto crashes, and electric chairs have a Depression-era violence to them, and his idolization of movie stars has a Thirties ring to it, too. Warhol’s best pictures have a layered power; he caught the spirit of his moment and of the time when he was a child. His being, in a way, a man of two periods makes him especially interesting now, because much current art has a two-decadeness to it. We are drawn to the look and spirit of the Fifties; we laugh even as we stare at the objects, cars, clothes, and personalities of the time. That era is like credit in a bank that we didn’t remember was there. The 1950s are barely known to artists born between, say, 1950 and 1955; the era, it might be said, seeped into this generation’s consciousness, as the Thirties seeped into Warhol’s.
And there is a finality about Warhol’s art. It is unlikely that someone would still want to base an art on celebrities, movie stars, tabloid disasters. Warhol wrapped up that material. We are probably interested in what lies behind the façade of modern media fame.
The real excitement and energy of Art of Our Time is in the more recent work, in volumes three and four, which show the painting of Philip Guston and Malcolm Morley, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, and Francesco Clemente, David Salle and Julian Schnabel, and the sculpture of Joel Shapiro. There are many more artists in these volumes; the most notable are the painters Elizabeth Murray, Terry Winters, Eric Fischl, and Bill Jensen, and the sculptor Scott Burton. But it is these others who best represent the aims of recent art. They come from different generations and schools of thought (and different countries). And not all of them are satisfying artists. They show, though, the range of the new art, which is done by artists who use the figure but aren’t conventional “figure” painters or sculptors; whose art is about the unconscious; who aren’t “literary” artists but who are poets.
Philip Guston may be the cornerstone of the second half of the collection—and of recent art. When he died, in 1980, at sixty-seven, people were in the process of coming around to him; he was still something of a new painter. He produced a lot of work in the last decade of his life; it was his best work, and we are at the phase where we want to see more and more of those paintings.
Guston’s story is, in part, about how he slowly found his voice, how he gave himself to different art movements, then broke free from them. He started out, in the Thirties, as a poet of social realism. He painted scenes of lonely boys in bed, kids fighting in streets; he showed ominous moments when people wait for something to happen, or play instruments. The pictures (most of which I have seen only in reproduction) are too artful and rather commercial. Then, in the late Forties, Guston joined ranks with the Abstract Expressionists. He became a painter of marks on an empty field. These marks—they’re the size of pats of butter, and have a buttery texture—nudge and push against each other. These abstractions are subtle and sumptuous. But as the years wore on, Guston appeared to become frazzled, impatient with pushing marks against marks; the subject of his pictures, as the Fifties wore on into the Sixties, seems to be frustration. Then, beginning in the late Sixties, Guston began making good-sized cartoonlike paintings, and one felt he had finally come into his own. He seemed to bring together his early subject matter with the sumptuous touch he had created as an abstractionist.
The real point about Guston, though, is less his development than the depth and variety of his final body of work. Many artists create a race of cartoon characters. But Guston is the first whose cartoon art is genuinely challenging and august. From his lively recorded talks and interviews, Guston apparently believed that his subject was modern anxiety, and, on the face of it, his pictures are nightmarish. But Guston is great because he dares to be silly on a grand scale. And his painted world isn’t barren—it is unusually inviting. His potato-head creatures, who are seen in profile (and with a bulging eyeball), stare manically forward. His Klansmen ride in convertibles; gather together and plot; whip their enemies. In some of his best pictures, the scene is a scantily furnished room in a city. There’s an old wood door, a lamp on the floor; a window is open, and there is one of those shades on a spring with a circle pull at the end of a cord. Through the window are visible massive biscuit-colored buildings: the office and municipal buildings of any downtown. (We might as well be in an artist’s studio.) The place is an American city of an earlier, pre-Second World War time. The characters are small-time hoods. They talk away the sunny, empty Saturday afternoon—at least, it feels like a weekend afternoon—smoking and playing cards. I don’t think Guston actually painted hoods playing cards, but somehow you hear a deck being shuffled when you immerse yourself in some of his scenes.
If you look at Rube Goldberg’s cartoons—the famous ones are from the Twenties—you will see the same downtown buildings, the same cars with big round rubber tires, the same rubbery people, even the same windows and window shades. And finding so much of Guston in Goldberg’s drawings (and Guston no doubt looked at other cartoon creators) only makes Guston better. Part of the point of Guston is that his images and style of drawing, with big rounded forms and lots of thick black outlining, to show sculptural solidity, aren’t his own. The pleasure of Guston’s work is in watching him re-create the world using a visual vocabulary—the cartoonist’s stripped-down language—which he didn’t invent.
Guston is a less romantic, and a less spiritual, figure than any of his fellow Abstract Expressionists. He is different from virtually all other American artists in that his subject isn’t mythical striving, or beauty, or youth, or sadness. Guston is a teller of macabre, what-if stories, an appreciator of the gross, the stupid, the corrupt. And yet—this is the amazing part—he isn’t cynical or ghoulish. His work is hearty, vigorous, and humorous. He is the first American whose work stands in the company of Goya and Ensor.
There is a stage in the development of recent art that is hard to account for. How and where did many of the strongest new artists, including Schnabel and Salle, Polke and Kiefer, come to create their respective worlds of floating, overlapping images? And is this new kind of picture-making related to Guston’s cartoon art? I think so—at least, for American artists. The relationship has to do, in part, with the sense of impermanence one feels in a Guston. He painted without set images in mind; he treated his canvases as if they were big sheets of paper that he could doodle on until he “found” images that felt right. In many Gustons, you see cloudy areas that have dark lines, or different colors, underneath. These flushed, often beautiful, areas are where a first or a second thought was covered over. His pictures almost always have a quivering, still-being-composed quality. Little is fixed in his world.
Little is fixed in the world of the new painting, either.
Little is fixed in the world of the new painting, either. When a viewer looks at a Julian Schnabel, say, he may find himself focusing and refocusing; his eyes may go from one image in the painting to the next, and as his eyes move the different elements become alternately sharper and blurrier. The elements can be a realistic image; a stylized and cartoonish drawing; an area of abstract brushwork; an actual object; a patch of empty canvas. Each is of equal interest—to the artist and to the viewer. Sometimes the elements come together, and tell a story; sometimes they don’t, and the picture may still feel right. Many artists now draw, with paint, on patterned fabrics, or on photographs, and when oil is drawn over, say, a decorative fabric a layer-upon-layer effect is produced—a 3-D sense of things going back into space.
After looking at these pictures, you may see earlier artists, even Old Masters, differently. You may find yourself “bringing forward” the backgrounds of paintings, and reading backgrounds and foregrounds as a sort of blinking, throbbing surface. The effect, or point, isn’t only optical or formal. It’s emotional, too. The marginal, “soft” stuff in a picture now becomes as interesting as the supposed center of attention. It is as if this were a period that wants to reintroduce heroes in paintings—wants to bring back the figure—and yet wants to show the not always substantial thoughts of these heroes.
The layering of Schnabel and the others might be called a development of Cubism, or a continuation of the collage spirit. But to our eyes the Cubists made pictures whose separate parts hang together, as if on an invisible net, and generally tell one story. Collage as the Cubists—and as later artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg—understood it was about an overall balancing act, a syncopated beat. When Rauschenberg, in the Fifties, brought together in a single picture patches of smeary paint, real objects (a tire, say), and silk-screened photo images, one felt that he was saying that there was beauty —or, even more, a pathos—in the jumbled (and frequently junky) heap of things.
Layering in recent art is more directly a demonstration of the way people think now—that is, with many seemingly unrelated thoughts and images hanging in the air simultaneously. That you take in these works by focusing on different parts doesn’t mean that the pictures are merely painted versions of photographs or movie stills, or that these artists are the products of a movie-oriented culture. The relation of photography, movies, and TV to recent art is subtle. For some artists, this relationship may be there only slightly, or not at all. Yet the way images appear in photos, movies, and TV has helped produce a feeling for the relatedness of all images: images taken from book illustrations, magazine ads, studies of plant and animal life in books, even pornography layouts—as well as from movies and TV shows and commercials. Visual information itself has become a subject. It is a subject the way geometry, or modern urban life, or nature, or mythology have been subjects.
Fine art—museum pictures, art styles—has become a subject, too, partly because museums have changed so drastically in the past twenty years.
Fine art—museum pictures, art styles—has become a subject, too, partly because museums have changed so drastically in the past twenty years. The change is felt as much in museums in Santa Barbara and Toronto as in the Met and the Modern. If you first went to museums in the Fifties and Sixties (or earlier), you can feel that museums have become rather similar, in tone, to department stores and TV. Museums are no longer anonymous settings for works of art. We are bombarded, in museums, with videotapes, postcards, posters, slides, books, acoustiguides, and calendars about artworks and artists. There’s a genuine hum of energy at museum bookshops; they can seem like the true center of life of the place. And we have become so used to seeing all paintings reproduced in color that many works of art now appear tame and flat compared with how they look in books.
Yet earlier art has not been devalued, and we haven’t been made skeptical about it. We are actually beyond the stage where it is exciting to make ironic jokes about classics; Marcel Duchamp’s having put a mustache on Mona Lisa seems insipid now. We have become more intimate with works of art. The figures and faces of previous art—the characters in paintings by Watteau, say, or Munch—now seem to be touchstones for artists to express more of themselves. In My Head, one of the most impressive paintings in the Saatchi collection, David Salle takes two Watteau drawings of a shoeshine boy—seen from the front and from the back—and draws them in a yellow orange oil and in a soft, brushy way, over a background image. That image is a series of views, done in a black-and-white brushed-on oil that resembles a grainy photo, of quasi-abstract sculptures set on a table in a darkened room. (The other major element in this mural-size work is a stretch of unpainted plywood, with wood pegs projecting from it—each painted blue at the end—which is placed above the images in the bottom half.) Quoting from Watteau, Salle seems to tip his cap to an admired painter. There is some contempt in his attitude, too; he treats the Watteaus impersonally, as decorative grace notes, and implies that he could have borrowed something from any artist. Yet Salle also has an affinity with these figures, which are rather romantic. There is a gentle erotic charge to them.
An artist runs a risk of being jokey, or fancy, when he or she refers in a painting to an earlier work of art, or takes a Munch painting, say, and redoes it; but it seems possible to take a known image and, so to speak, inhabit it. And there is little difference whether that image is a Munch painting, a Giotto fresco, or a still from The Honeymooners. In the realm of images, Giotto is on the same footing as stills from TV shows.
There is a detachment to the new art. It is there in the way many of these paintings are made, and it may be an underlying point of view. In paintings where disparate images float side by side, or on top of another, and different styles, or ways of drawing, are brought together in the same work, the meaning may be that there are no connections between things. In continually referring to the past, these artists may imply that the past was more full, or real, than the present, that our identity will be complete only when we re-create the past. Yet the prevailing mood of the new art isn’t sour or grayed; it is appreciative, sensuous, voracious.
One of the big differences between the current generation of artists and previous ones is their relation to popular culture. Popular culture used to be something an artist brought into his work in order to give it a jolt of real life; the point was to bring art down to earth. Popular culture is more ingrained now. A young artist may no longer make a leap from his or her serious thoughts to, say, a comic-strip, a TV, or a rock-’n’-roll way of thinking, where everything is simplified, intensified; he or she may now begin with such a sense of things. Didn’t Jean-Luc Godard, in his movies of the Sixties, create such a world, where people were walking and talking cartoon characters? Godard was a forerunner, but the difference between his movies and art now is that his tone is witty, analytical, self-conscious. In his movies, everything is arch; every kiss and every murder is in italics. That self-consciousness is gone. Many artists now seem to feel that they can be most serious—that they can be most themselves—when they put their feelings in the mouths of puppets.
In retrospect, it can appear as if much of the new art of the Fifties and Sixties—the work of Judd, Warhol, Twombly, Flavin, Katz, Johns—was about transforming vernacular, popular art forms (and industrial materials, such as house paint and fluorescent lighting) into high art. In the years when Johns made his American flag paintings, when Warhol made Marilyn Monroe his subject, and when Katz rethought traditional painting motifs in terms of movie stills and billboard ads, beauty was imbued with a lordly irony. And Judd, Flavin, and the other Minimalists have the same distant, removed stance. On some basic level (which, over the years, we may have lost sight of), Judd’s work is sardonic, even taunting. He is as aggressively tongue-in-cheek about aluminum and plexiglas and simple box shapes as Johns is about the American flag.
The artists of Katz’s and Johns’s generation came of age not long after the United States and Abstract Expressionism had become world-conquering forces, and their work reflects this. It’s expansive, worldly. But it has the attitude of a son who takes over the family business empire and makes it even bigger, and yet is not altogether comfortable, happy, or satisfied with the job; he had the role thrust upon him, and he finds himself locked into perpetuating a family image that wasn’t originally his. Not only is the sense of space in the work of Judd, Katz, Johns, Frankenthaler, Twombly, and the rest extremely shallow, but the works themselves push out against a viewer like so many shields. Each piece seems to say, “You'll get no secrets, no inner thoughts from me. I am my surface alone.” Johns summarized an aspect of his generation in No, a 1961 picture of a gray surface, a sort of wall, that has a metal line running over it from the top to the bottom. At the bottom of the line is the word NO in stencils. The picture is touching; it is also bruised, angry, somewhat frightening. And its main point is: No, don’t come any farther.
Artists now in their twenties and thirties have been inspired by the previous generation in their work, and have inherited its confidence, too. But they don’t have such a masklike and ironic sense of things. They’re more romantic and gullible and less guarded; they are also, expressively, less tight. The new painting, in its surfaces and sense of space, says, “Enter.” This is where Guston is, again, very much our contemporary. When his cartoon work was first shown it was said that he was slumming. Here was an intellectual on vacation, the argument went, applying a luscious, painterly touch to dumb cartoon scenes. For many of the early admirers of his work, though, the idea that Guston was slumming—that he was ironic—didn’t arise; slumming was an idea from an earlier time, when popular culture was brought into one’s work coolly, or with a tone of daredevil boasting. Guston’s new pictures were realistic (though I suppose we didn’t think of them in just this way). They were “realistic” in that they seemed to show how people thought. A viewer might have felt, This is what it is like inside my mind— everything does pass by in this shifting, exaggerated, sweaty, nervous, heroic, mock-heroic way. Guston’s Klansmen, his potato-head characters—even his inanimate subjects: his shoes and clocks—seem to say, “Am I a jerk? A genius? Will they get the point? Will they love me? Who could really know how great I am? I’m dying.”
Guston showed how comic-strip art—and, really, any art—could present the feel, the texture, of psychological moments. Not psychoanalytical, primal, or disturbed moments; not the material that the Surrealists (with their bizarre, dreamlike images) and Giacometti (with his sculptures that suggest impotence and impending violence) presented. The sense of psychology in Guston and in younger artists is more something that’s taken for granted; there is an equal interest in an act and in the motivation for an act.
Like Guston, Malcolm Morley, who is fifty-four, has been thought of as a link between an earlier generation and recent art. There are Morleys from every phase of his development, from the mid-Sixties up through the present, in Art of Our Time, and I can see why this English-born artist, who lives and works in New York, has been important in the past five years. Like younger painters, he brings together seemingly unrelated images, occasionally done on separate canvases, in one work, and, like Guston, he communicates the feeling that a painter is free to make a substantial work out of any image he chooses, no matter how wild. For me, though, Morley is important less for his actual work than for his presence on the scene, his example. I feel the same way about his work looking at it in Art of Our Time as I did seeing it in his retrospective in 1984. (It came to the Brooklyn Museum.) I left his Brooklyn show liking Morley himself: his gusto, his belief in art. He appears to be excited by the very tubes of paint, the brushes, the pans of watercolor, the sticks of charcoal. Yet his pictures seem to be mostly experiments in this or that way of painting. Some crucial element in them is unbelievable.
Morley began, in the Sixties, as a photo-realist—he coined the term “superrealist.” His early works are painstaking copies of images of cruise ships and of cruise life, taken from ads. He also copied works of art; the Saatchis own his copies of Vermeer’s Portrait of the Artist in His Studio (Morley’s is much larger than the original) and of Raphael’s School of Athens. On a theoretical level, these pictures were ahead of their time; Morley was making paintings about how paintings appear in photographs. But his photorealist works, when you see them, are irritating; what you are conscious of is the tedious job he gave himself. Follow his career and you see him literally breaking apart his early diligent art. Going through a Morley retrospective is a little like reading a novel. You see a man growing, stretching; he seems to say to himself, “This early stuff of mine, it’s so tight and stiff, I’ve got to bust open.” Over the years, the surfaces of his pictures and his images themselves become increasingly messy, loose. He opens things up very literally; he makes paintings, for instance, where those cruise ships are attacked by planes. It can look as if the very canvases have been blown up by shrapnel. There are paintings, too, where cities—and the whole world, it would appear—are going up in flames. The feeling of catastrophe and chaos sometimes seems to mirror the period in which Morley painted. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, he made pictures whose subject matter is riots in cities, busing, Vietnam.
In the past five years or so, Morley has become a vigorous, brushy painter of fairly traditional subjects—beach scenes, exotic places and animals, cows in a pasture—which he sometimes treats in odd ways. Farewell to Crete is an enormous collagelike picture; it shows huge bathers quite close to us, tiny bathers in the distance, and, painted to the sides, on top, and over them, large and small Cretan horses and statues. Arizonac is a fiery Southwestern landscape. In it, two gigantic Hopi Indians—they’re much larger than the mountains—rush toward us, while on the ground, at their feet, is a speck-size Indian on a horse. And there are pictures of faraway places that may refer to Britain’s colonial past. These recent works are more appealing than his photorealist ones, but the new pictures feel hollow, too. Why does Morley distort shapes, and mix very big and very little sizes? Why, in the Crete painting, is red paint thrown on top of the image of sky and water, and why is a trail of blue paint going around and over the Cretan statue? With another artist, these details might be parts of a flowing whole; when David Salle lets paint from one area in a picture run down into another we don’t stop to think about what he means by it. But with Morley the quirky elements and oddities of painting halt us; we feel that they have to be explained and that knowing what they mean won’t make the pictures better.
One looks forward to Morley’s shows; one wants to know what he is going to do next. The main question about him, though, is biographical, not aesthetic. Does he calculatedly keep abreast of changes in current art, or is he on his own course—a course that happens to parallel what other people are doing? His real subject, it can seem, is being an artist. He always appears to be giving himself formal problems and trying to solve them. Morley himself may be more tangible than his work, but if he lost some of his respect for Painting his work might be more personal.
The revelation of Art of Our Time for American viewers is likely to be Sigmar Polke. This German painter, who is forty-five, has had three shows in New York in the past few years but is still barely known here. Based on the dates of his pictures—the earliest ones in the Saatchi collection are from the mid-Sixties—he is the first artist to float disparate images in one picture in a way that feels new.
In Polke’s best work, he generally uses a bit of an ad, a poster, a cartoon, or a photo, which he silk-screens on. Then he subtly mucks over that image: he buries it under vaporous washes of color, he draws doodles around or on top of it. He usually doesn’t work on canvas. He frequently uses sections of old, faded, inexpensive fabrics, often with ornamental patterns that probably come from—and certainly make us think of—the Fifties. Polke is like Klee in so many ways he seems to be Klee’s heir. He resembles Klee in his wit, his venturesomencss with materials, the way he at first appears to have no one style. He’s like Klee in that some of his works are so slight they barely seem to be there at all. But you don’t think of Klee when you see Polke—you don’t think of anyone. His work may be the most original any artist has made so far about Germany after the war. He seems to use already-existing images because he is saying that these images are all that is left. His pictures sometimes feel as though they were the products of a post-apocalypse person who doesn’t know what art is but has a desire to make paintings, and so uses, as starters, whatever images he can find—cartoons, ads, posters—and then, in a somewhat spastic and dribbly way, decorates them.
Polke is the opposite of Warhol.
Polke is the opposite of Warhol. A Warhol bank of Elvises, or even a single Liz, keeps you at a distance, and that is one of the classy and best things about the picture. Warhol printed the images on the canvas and colored them in a slipshod way, but his pictures are the opposite of tacky. They’re stiff, like icons. He says, “Look, world, these are the new gods.” Polke wants a world without gods. He almost seems to want a world without artists. When we look at an individual picture of his we often feel we’re seeing the work of many different hands. His art is almost programmatically uncommanding—even impoverished. Seeing his pictures in reproduction doesn’t give a sense of their deliberate flimsiness. His marks can be very faint; his paint can be watery, milky; he doesn’t always use stretchers, so the pictures can sag. He’s not particularly fussy, and he works with very large sizes, but there’s something private, veiled, evanescent about his works. He asks a viewer to get very close to his surfaces; you feel you have to be surrounded by the picture before its begins to happen to you.
Rudi Fuchs, in his catalogue essay, says that Polke believes he’s making a political point by not giving us imposing images. We sense this, too, and the pictures become heartier when we know that there are philosophical reasons for them to look the way they do. Polke might as well be saying, “No more heroes, no more tyrants, no more logos.” Isn’t he also indirectly criticizing the overbearing, self-important quality of so much American art since the Second World War? His point might be: No more Mark Rothko floating squares, Barnett Newman stripes, Judd boxes, or Marilyns—no more chapels of art, with icons that we have to bow down to. I want this to be a world of fuzzy, fluctuating bits of this and that.
His Liebespaar II, a roughly six-foot-high posterlike painting from 1965, which shows a man touching a woman, is the single most startling image in the Saatchi collection. I am exaggerating, but this picture—it has not been in any of his New York shows—is like the beginning of a new consciousness in art. The painting seems to borrow from Dada, from Pop, and, vaguely, from Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism. But Liebespaar II is not a joke (as a Dada image would be), it’s not a stylishly soulless picture (as a Pop image would be), it’s not particularly muscular, or heroic. It is more like a melancholy and nasty meditation on life. It is full of disturbing touches. The smiling man, who is in a gray suit, has a black dot for an eye and seems like a toy—he might be the grown kid of the Dubonnet Man, dressed for the prom. The woman’s features are more realistic (she recalls Joan Crawford); her eyes really look out at us. The image is like a date between two people with different kinds of limitations. There are dots, in different sizes and colors, painted over her neck and face, among other places, and it is the dots that make the picture revolting. There is something sadistic about the way her face and neck are covered by dots. We can imagine Polke first painting her, then taking a wormy pleasure in painting these dots over her. It is as though he’s airily sprinkling her with a disease. Polke is not altogether nice. His art is sly, grim, and indirect—as well as beautiful and novel. This may be why he is still relatively unknown in this country and why he may always be an artist most appreciated by other artists.
Yet he has painted his poster couple with such care! He handles paint in the pure and quietly adept way that an old-time journeyman artist, making a sign for a tavern, would. And by fouling his woman—those dots—he gives her a personal quality she wouldn’t have otherwise. That is the daring and original thing about Polke. He takes poster people and cartoon characters and fragments from photographs and makes them agents in a kind of psychological drama.
Anselm Kiefer, the other important German artist—he is also represented by a large number of choice works in Art of Our Time—is Polke’s opposite number. They have very different approaches to the same subject: recent history and their Germany. If Polke’s motto is “Flippant at all moments,” Kiefer’s is “Heroically I take my stand.” The slight difference in their ages—Polke was born in 1941, Kiefer in 1945—probably has something to do with the big differences in their tones. One half believes that Polke keeps up a frivolous tone in his work because, as a very young child, he experienced some of the actual war. And one half believes that Kiefer is determined to keep recreating the war because he just missed experiencing it. He wants us to hear bombs going off in the distance when we look at his paintings.
Not all of Kiefer’s pictures are directly about the Second World War.
Not all of Kiefer’s pictures are directly about the Second World War. There are pictures, for instance, with Biblical themes. But nearly everything of his suggests devastation or a swelling national harmony. In his many landscapes of fields and fewer interiors— they are of cavernous, burned-out public places—it appears to be the winter or spring of 1945. It is the last days of the Third Reich. Kiefer’s large pictures feel enormous even in reproduction. Viewing them, we believe we are an inspection team; we walk through the rubble, or fly low over the fields in a small plane. Everyone is absent—dead, or moved on. But the sites are choking with different emotions. The earth is squishy, we suspect that there is fresh blood in it. We pick our way over burnt logs, piles of bricks. We become German. It is a heady moment. We're relieved that the fighting is over, and bitter at the waste. We have a secret sense of loyalty, too; we are sure that the victors cannot be as proud as we are.
Kiefer’s paintings are mostly in sooty grays, rust-reds, earth colors, black. There are slate-blues and, occasionally, daubs of turquoise or pink. You can find yourself staring at a Kiefer for a long time. This happens in part because he paints—and adds materials, such as straw and wax—directly on top of already-existing images. In some of his landscapes, he paints on top of (and almost obliterates) blown-up photos of landscapes that are affixed to the canvas. In pictures made up of rows of portraits, he paints on top of wallpaperlike sheets of portraits, made from woodcuts. Sometimes we have the pleasantly weird feeling that the images are pulsating as we look at them.
The surfaces of his pictures are a mixture of the molten, the blotchy, and the blistered. When he paints on top of a photograph, the pictures can have a waxy, opaque texture. When he adds straw to his surfaces—he does this frequently—we get another rough, raw, and brittle texture. Yet a Kiefer generally gives the impression of something elegantly off-kilter and full of tasty different little textures. His paintings are among the most sheerly beautiful that anyone has made in the past ten years.
There is something that doesn’t sit right about Kiefer’s lyric beauty, though. A viewer feels that he has to tailor his feelings in order to enter Kiefer’s world. You don’t just drift into and out of these pictures; you have to take them on their own exalted-and-pitying terms. Kiefer reminds me a little of Rouault and Francis Bacon. Their work has a similar sanctimonious and jazzily despairing air. These artists seem to think more like novelists than painters; they want their work to be about the “condition of man.” They impress us when they become known, because they take amazing liberties with their materials; they seem to invent new ways to paint in order to tell their stories. They are certainly involved with the matter, the stuff, of painting. Yet they seem to be above mere art; there is no thinking about form in their work. Their paintings seem to be based on a conception that they come back to again and again. When we stop being absorbed by the story each man tells, we are left feeling that their art is so much artifice.
This sense about Kiefer has grown on me after having seen a number of his New York shows. It’s hard to have doubts about his twenty-three works in Art of Our Time, though. Even if he never painted again we would know his attitudes as a social historian and his themes as a poet. And there are some unusual Kiefers in the Saatchi collection—pictures which aren’t landscapes or interiors, but which are as good as anything he has done. Baum mit Palette shows, against a dark background, a portion of a huge tree trunk which, though it’s not realistically painted, has, in the reproduction, anyway, an amazingly treelike presence. Affixed to its center is a painter’s palette, made of metal and painted battleship-gray. Its color and material remind us of war, and the image of a palette—Kiefer uses it often—makes us think that the picture might be an allegory about the artist’s power, or ineffectuality. The painting seems to cry out, “Analyze me!” We don’t want to. It seems enough to say that Baum mit Palette feels both new and like an image from a book of tales. It is like a portrait of an ancient, half-dead tree granted immunity from the axe—a tree in a prince’s forest, to which an itinerant court painter, travelling through the forest, has affixed his emblem.
Three other Kiefer paintings—they are made up of rows of faces—are even finer. Two of the pictures are titled Wege der Weltweisheit: die Hermannsschlacht and the other is Noch ist Polen nicbt verloren IV. The first two show logs, flames, and circular lines drawn over rows of woodcut portraits of famous Germans of the past, and Polen shows faces painted over and through a ploughed field, which recedes into the distance. These paintings present a less heroic—and, possibly, a more personal and original—side of Kiefer. We feel we are encountering a bookish man who might have been a historian and someone who, perhaps even from childhood, might have been in love with the swirl of personalities that make up his nation’s intellectual family. (There are actual swirling lines of oil paint going in and out of the portrait heads.) These face paintings ought to seem literary, yet they’re Kiefer’s most abstract works. They are the works of his that most resemble the work of other painters of his generation. One wants to see them in the company of pictures by Schnabel, Salle, Polke, and the rest.
Francesco Clemente, who was born in Naples, and now lives for parts of each year in India, Rome, and New York, is a genius with his hand, a genius inventor of images. He first became known in New York with versions of Indian miniatures that perfectly re-created the minutely detailed, ornately colored, and smooth-surfaced nature of this art. Clemente also showed pastels, and they were even more impressive. They were in a class with the best pastels ever—those by Redon, Samaras, Cassatt, Degas, Miró. In later exhibitions, Clemente presented oils and then watercolors that were equally amazing as performances. They showed that, regardless of his subject, he brings out the special flavor of whatever medium he uses.
In his art, Clemente seems to say, quite calmly—and his images and mood are generally calm, no matter how weird—“You’re not going to believe this.” A Clemente picture is like the glass wall of an aquarium that we look into. Drifting by, and sometimes looking out at us, are people, disembodied faces, and, sometimes, little animals (rodents, mostly). Many are in the process of becoming something else. It is a land of oozy metamorphoses. Clemente does for the human body and its orifices what Chagall did for Eastern European village life and the romance of Paris.
The center of Clemente’s world is a very short-haired, wide-eyed, and often unclothed figure who resembles the artist and who we automatically assume is Clemente. At times, he’s unaware of us; he’s absorbed by problems, we’re simply watching him. At other times, he dreamily peers out at us, or scowls. He can appear as a sullen little satyr. We often see him from below; we’re aware of his nostrils. His face is porcine; he is sensual and superior, eunuchlike, evil. Sometimes he appears in a shirt and slacks, and stands a bit sheepishly, his back a little hunched. In these images, Clemente captures a type we know from movies but have not seen in paintings: the modern Italian intellectual. This fellow is simultaneously stylish, professorial, sexy, urban, dissatisfied, and shy.
Clemente’s art throws into relief the work of his contemporaries.
Clemente’s art throws into relief the work of his contemporaries. He does instinctively what the others do in a perhaps more theoretical way. He switches from one level to another level of space—and one kind to another kind of drawing—in the same picture with the unthinking fluency of a mimic. In his fullest works, which are often his pastels, he blends fantasy images with imitations of children’s drawings and of patterned decoration. Yet, so far, some core feeling is missing from his art as a whole. (He is thirty-three.) Going through the pages on him in Art of Our Time is elating at first. It’s a barrage of fascinating, lewd, and amusing dream images, done in startlingly bright and perfumy soft colors. But I don’t carry away a lot; there is something neutralized in his vision.
Clemente may want to produce a kind of pacified state in the viewer. He seems to think like an Indian artist; some of his images derive from Indian art, and the cosmic space that his figures swirl in feels Indian. And his art has the same effect on me as Indian miniatures, which are phenomenally beautiful, but always beautiful in the same way. After seeing a number of them, my mind wanders. Clemente’s art is like Indian miniatures, too, in that, no matter what the actual size of his pictures, they have more impact when seen in a book. The sensuous and decorative beauty that he is after somehow comes across best in a small format and when a viewer is in private contact with it. Clemente has spoken of his love of William Blake, and, like Blake, he makes certain work specifically for books, often to accompany a text (he has collaborated with Allen Ginsberg).
Yet Clemente isn’t simply a European who works out of an affinity for Eastern art and thought. The resignation that is felt in his art comes from him personally; it is felt in many Western artists now. Clemente merely takes it further than anyone else. Without intending to do so, he gives us the dilemma—as well as the mind—of a mimic. We see an artist whose hand is effortlessly capable of reproducing any effect or known style, and we see the sense of inner void that can underlie that talent.
For the past five years or so, Julian Schnabel and—to a lesser extent—David Salle have been the foremost new artists in New York. They are the American masters of the floating, layered vision, and, at least from what has been shown in New York, no European matches them. Until very recently, their pictures have seemed superficially alike, and Salle has been somewhat overshadowed by Schnabel. Salle’s pictures are lighter in tone, subtler in their emotions, more restrained and indirect. He has perfected one of the central formal ideas of recent art: the contrast of elements. Many of his pictures are composed of juxtapositions of scenes painted with a dry brush, in shades of gray, with scenes painted in oil in rich, full colors. Sometimes he contrasts his filmy, grayish scenes with vignettelike images, or actual objects, or words. Almost everything he does has a one-two structure, a play of color against colorlessness, coolness against heat, intangibility against graspableness, memory against the present.
Schnabel doesn’t dwarf Salle—or Guston, Kiefer, or Polke. But Schnabel, who is thirty-four, seems to have in him something of everyone else. He is exciting because he seems to come from nowhere and to obey no rules. He is obviously aware of twentieth-century art and its theories, and his painting is indebted to earlier figures, but one feels that the weight of twentieth-century thought has been lifted from him. His work has, if anything, a nineteenth-century—and a European, rather than American—appearance. He often affixes antlers, chains, or pieces of broken crockery to his paintings, and paints on velvet, pinto-pony hides, pieces of flannel—even on Oriental carpets. His pictures have an air of King Ludwig’s Bavarian castles. These nineteenth-century castles are conglomerations of previous styles: Byzantine, Gothic, Moorish, and Louis XIV, with elements of Alpine hunting lodges and Mediterranean grottoes blended in. Schnabel’s paintings are also concoctions of old and new art, and they are also lush and luxurious, beckoning and charming—and, at times, heavy and musty. Most of his pictures include figures and faces but some are abstract. They are about ambition, strength, and, one can feel, broken strength. They often show wrestlers, warriors, saints, powerful babies, muscular men whose eyes are shadowed and sunk in and, so they appear, stern men with big plans, big-time losers.
Schnabel’s pictures have a distinctive scale. They aren’t bigger, in general, than other artists’ pictures; but he has a natural feeling for a boxy, squarish format, and his forms often have an attractive lumbering quality. A viewer sometimes feels with a Schnabel that he is encountering a single large protruding form, and that the sides of his pictures count for relatively little (whereas in a Salle every element seems to be smoothly and adroitly going out to you and pulling back from you at the same time).
Schnabel’s pictures have a distinctive scale.
Schnabel is a more exuberant, giving—and also bullying—talent than Salle, or Polke. We can be surprised by these painters, but we know their minds; at least, we think we know the problems they have set for themselves. With Schnabel I am often in a position where I love a work but have no sense that he will return to its type and build on it. I especially don’t know what he’s driving at in his abstract pictures. Sometimes it seems that they are made out of bravado alone—that he’ll walk up to a canvas (or piece of velvet) and forge ahead with whatever comes into his mind at the moment.
Yet Schnabel’s abstractions, which are often of flat shapes, are some of his best works. Schnabel is often at his most mysterious and inventive when he brushes the paint on in odd, sprawling shapes. They are interesting shapes; they are like the shadows of creatures that are part human, part vegetable. We seem to be watching something swaddled that is squawking and about to tear itself apart. That Schnabel goes back and forth between abstractions and pictures with figures and faces in them can be taken as a sign that he is torn between the two. Or perhaps he is saying that the distinction between abstraction and representation has become virtually meaningless. And there is another layer of meaning to his abstractions. The shapes in them often seem to be shadows, or remnants, and in this they are about what abstraction has become: a memory of something once powerful.
The twenty-five Schnabel paintings in the Saatchi collection—it is a top-notch group—are dated 1977–78 to 1983. There is wonderful variety to them. No one “Schnabel look” emerges. But there is a built-in set of problems to his overall approach, and it has materialized in more recent work. He seems to want to systematically go against all conventions, and this has taken him into some long unexplored types of pictures, such as crucifixions. He has had to paint faces, real faces with features, and his faces haven’t been successful. They feel made up; they're ghoulish and ugly. When the faces in a Schnabel are too fleshed out (as they were in many of the pictures in his 1985 New York show), the whole work tends to become heavy, inert. So far, Schnabel clicks when he paints figures and faces with a few quick lines. There is an unexpected unity between the lathered-up surfaces of his pictures, and their baronial sizes, and the doodlelike figures and faces that pop out of them.
One of the best Schnabels in the Saatchi collection, though, has one of these coarsely drawn, anonymous faces in it. Pre History; Glory, Honor, Privilege and Poverty (his titles are generally on the windy side) shows, floating next to one another, one of those faces; a male baby, who points his finger; and a simple line drawing of an upside-down Eskimo-type man. There is also what looks like an enormous pear with a knife beside it. Pre History is on pony skin, and it is primarily a black-and-white, tan, brown, yellow, and dark green picture, with lots of antlers stuck on it. It has the colors and flavor of an Adirondack “camp,” one of those rustic retreats made for a millionaire eighty years ago. For some reason, the man’s face in Pre History—it is Big Brotherish—works. Maybe because the picture seems to be a page scrambled from history, anthropology, and art-history textbooks.
Schnabel is one of the warmest talents in American painting ever. The warmth is in his feeling for color, for textures. His color isn’t easily labeled; he doesn’t stylize color around a few chords, as Kiefer does. He doesn’t, like Salle, play hot color off cool grays. He isn’t, like Clemente, a master of a rainbow range of equally intense bright and dark colors. Schnabel likes colors to glow. He may have been prompted to paint on velvet because it is a no-no; but he may also have been drawn to it because bright colors shimmer on velvet. When he affixes broken plates and cups to his thick oil surfaces, the effect is voluptuous, especially when a work is seen from a few feet away or in a reproduction. Schnabel’s color and touch are comforting, hearthlike, rousing.
Schnabel is one of the warmest talents in American painting ever.
The sculptor Joel Shapiro is one of the links between Judd and Schnabel—between an uncompromising formalist and, it would seem, an egoist who says that there are no more rules. Shapiro, who creates vaguely puppetlike figures seen in awkward positions, isn’t, at first sight, a commanding figure; his pieces can be slight, and they aren’t, in size or appearance, “important” or monumental. Yet he is one of the central figures in recent art. Like Polke, he straddles two points of view. Polke came up from Pop art and transformed it; Shapiro has done the same for Minimalism, and in this he also resembles the Saatchis themselves. His evolution parallels theirs as collectors. One feels that they collect Minimalist art (and the work of other artists of that generation) with a sense of respect; but they seem closer to, more at ease with, the work of Guston and the younger artists.
Shapiro became known for working with theatrically small sizes and for bringing recognizable images into sculpture at a time—the early Seventies—when most serious sculpture was abstract, or a work of Earth art, or Process art. Some of his early pieces (virtually everything of his is untitled) were of a chair or of a house. These primitively simple pieces, often done in cast iron, were like images of the idea of “chair” or “house.” They were about three or five inches high and were placed without pedestals on the gallery floor. Later pieces were abstract but referred in some way to a house, a shelter, a fortified place. His work has been getting bigger in size, more recognizably of the figure, and better. Most of it is made from wood beams, then cast into bronze. His figures are like the woodblock sculpture that children make in shop classes. A Shapiro might be called a child’s sculpture that, because of the way the parts fit together and the way the piece is placed on the floor, has been given an inner life.
His figures are generally of a lone man. These figures don’t have faces; some don’t even have heads. And their arms have no hands; the beams are simply cut off. Yet by angling this “arm” beam to this “torso” beam in such a way, Shapiro creates figures that seem enveloped in a thought, a state of feeling. He takes a few blocks, makes out of them a torso, a head, and arms, then turns this “figure” on its side—and we have, say, a sleeping person. But not only sleeping: Shapiro makes it appear as though this figure were also lonely, restless, wiped out. His finest pieces are often painted wood figures. (None of these are in Art of Our Time.) His color—he has used, among others, a red-black and a nighttime blue—can seem arbitrary, mental, fanciful; yet it is put on in such a way that you feel as though the wood were blushing this particular color.
Shapiro’s sculpture would enhance pictures by Kiefer, Schnabel, and the rest if they were placed together in an exhibition (and vice versa). His pieces, too, are composites; he is a joiner, not a carver or a modeler And his sculpture recalls a lot of other sculpture: De Stijl and Russian Constructivism and American folk-art toys; the sculpture of William King and the figures in the work of the early twentieth-century English painter David Bomberg.
Shapiro’s pieces are so many literal and formal balancing acts. They’re emotional balancing acts, too, and this is what makes his work an emblem for the new art. What he’s juggling, on the face of it, are different attitudes about his artistic past. He began as a quasi-Minimalist—or, certainly, when Minimalism was the challenging style—and whether his subject is a house set by itself on a floor, or a figure balancing on one leg, his geometrically rigid forms recall that style. A viewer can feel that Shapiro is afraid to move on from a Minimalist aesthetic; Judd seems to be breathing down on him. At other times, he’s like someone who remains at a declining institution out of sympathy for it and a desire to give it new blood. Sometimes he seems to toy with, to ridicule Minimalism. And, at times, you believe he’s not interested in Minimalism at all. He seems beyond it; he is in competition with the great works of figurative sculpture of all periods.
Shapiro’s work evokes many separate emotions. An individual figure of his can seem, moment by moment, despondent, hesitant, pugnacious—or powerfully assured. His figures seem to have a troubled awareness of how self-absorbed they are. His work may come to represent the spirit of the present time.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 7, on page 22
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