Űberkitsch and High Modernism

Pop Art is the marriage of Camp and Kitsch.  Camp is an ironic, deadpan, disposition, a sham enthusiasm for the banal, the trite, the tacky and the vulgar.  This outlook had its origin in certain homosexual circles in New York in the 1950’s.  Camp asserted a new identity distinct from, and mocking of, the previous, “macho”, Abstract Expressionist generation, which was part of the “great generation” that survived the Depression and won WWII.

In the 1960’s, the first wave of newly monied collectors naively embraced Pop as a celebration of themselves.  It went with the Baby Boomers, Rock and Roll and the psychedelic, memorialized in posters and album covers of the period.  The purely visual qualities of this sensibility include:  the reflective, the florescent, the iridescent, neon, the glitzy, the glossy, the metallic, the plasticey, the gaudy, the tawdry, the garish, the lurid, the junky, the trashy, the grungy, the punk, the mass produced, all features which, up until then, had denoted the unaesthetic, bad taste and/or the crassly commercial.

One might trace this sensibility back to Pollock and his use of aluminum paint, and black enamel in the late 40’s.  But it was the Pop artists which brought it center stage:  Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Robert Rausdenberg, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Claus Oldenburg, Edward Kienholz, and others.  Besides Pop there were other manifestations of this same Pop sensibility in the 60’s.  There was the use of metallic paint and the florescent color by pop abstractionists like Frank Stella and Donald Judd.  There was the “L.A. Plastic” artists like Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and John McCracken.  The best of these was Ron Davis who achieved the first, major, purely plastic picture.  It had nothing of the oil on canvas look or feel.  In Europe there were the “Nouveau Realistes”, the best of whom were Arman and Yves Klein (the latter especially his gold and “Yves Klein blue” pictures).

Lynda Benglis is a crucial figure here too.  Up until the early 1970’s, no one had brought forth such a full throated version of this outré sensibility which I am sketching here.  Her use of polyurethane foam, phosphorescent pigments, poured pigmented latex, florescent colors, iridescent cellophane, glitter and metallic effects distinguished her work of that time.  But Benglis has never been much of a painter.  Her poured pigmented latex transfers positioned on the floor, have, at best, a weak expressive presence.  She is more at home in three dimensions.  For example, the projecting wall pieces in a black-light lit room in her recent exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan were very effective, but perhaps a bit too much like being at the Aquarium.  On the whole, Benglis is a restless, scattershot provocateur who has never been able to focus on, or develop, her best ideas. 

Another, even bigger wave of artists evincing this same sensibility began to come along in the early 1980’s when it was sometimes called “Űberkitsch”:  Graffiti Art, Neo Expressionism and Neo Geo.  Among the biggest names were Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Herring, Judy Pfaff, Sigmar Polke, David Reed, Peter Halley, Chris Ofili, Anish Kapoor, Steven Parrino, Isa Genzken, Barbara Kruger.  Their works appear regularly at the auctions of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.  The viewings for these auctions serve the same function as the Paris Salon in the 19th century France in that it too presents what is considered the “important” art of our time.  Very occasionally, some of these Salon Stars can produce visually compelling and strikingly original works.  I am thinking especially of certain pictures by Schnabel, those on black velvet and those done with horsehair.  Some of Hirst’s “spin” pictures are powerful and vibrant as are Cecily Brown’s paintings when they are most pornographic in subject and most gaudy in color.  Then there are those stunning, but rare, first rate abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter.  Most recently, there are those pictures by the German painter, Anselem Reyle, in which he employs mylar foil.  But like the others, Reyle seems completely hit or miss, with the misses far outnumbering the hits.  Either these Salon Stars are acutely market sensitive or, like Benglis, unable to identify and develop their best ideas.  Or both.  (Perhaps one implies the other.)

Except for Ron Davis, High Modernism did not take to Pop sensibility.  The Color Field painters like Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons who came along in the late 1950s and early 1960s did embrace the new, plastic, water based, acrylic paint.  It made staining much easier and offered a new range of bright clear color.  But all of this group steered clear of florescent color and other Pop qualities.  Only in 1969 did Larry Poons embrace the plastic look in his vertical stripe paintings.  But he then quickly dropped it.  Some of Peter Bradley’s work of the 1970’s also had this distinctly plastic look, but he too quickly turned away from it and toward another, more familiar kind of Color Field painting. 

      The New New painters were part of the second, “Űberkitsch” wave, coming along in the early 80’s.  All of the NNP had their formative years in the psychedelic 1960’s, but,their more immediate and profound influence, was High Modernism:  Pollock-type painting and especially the Color Field painters, all of whom they knew personally.  Lucy Baker, who one of her colleagues once called the “punk princess”, was the first High Modernist to come forth with a big range of “Uberkitsch” effects.  She was quickly followed by Jill Natherson, Graham Peacock, Roy Lerner, Bruce Piermarini, Marge Minkin, Joseph Drapell, Irene Neal and John Gittens.  All had struggled in the late 1970’s to find a way beyond Olitski, whose influence had become for them oppressive. Űberkitsch enabled them to devise a more aggressively expressionistic form of address which eschewed the high impassiveness of Oiltski.

Also there was a confluence between the N.N.P.’s  Űberkitsch sensibility and the development of acrylic paint.  Stimulated by the artists, Sam and Mark Golden created a whole line of acrylic paints that offered Űberkitsch effects but now more stable and permanent than heretofore.  Among these were glitter paint, holographic paint, panspectra paint, clear gel, protective varnish for florescent paint and much more.  So too, the auto industry, in the late 1980’s, developed interference metallic paints, featured in the contemporary sculpture of John Chamberlain.  (His 1970’s iridescent sculptures in mineral coated synthetic polymer resin are New New avant la letter.)  Various types of resins, expoxies, vinyls, and a whole variety of other synthetic materials became available in these years.

The N.N.P. then represents the assimilation by High Modernism of Űberkitsch in the service of a full throttle expressionism.  Of course the N.N.P. were only interested in the purely visual properties of Űberkitsch.  Their art remained visually based, at least in comparison with conceptually based Pop Art and Postmodernism.  (So far, Peter G. Ray is the only High Modernist to absorb the conceptual character of Postmodernism.)

In passing, I’d like to suggest that Űberkitsch might be said to be the only discernable stylistic feature of late 20th century and early 21st century painting.  Reyle’s work demonstrates that this sensibility is still very current and attracting major figures.

What distinguishes the High Modernism of the N.N.P. from the work of the Salon Stars? Only the consistently high level of N.N.P. work over the past 30 years.  As I noted above, a distinctive feature of the very best of the Salon Stars is their wild inconsistency and the rarity of their successes.  So what accounts for the extraordinary consistency of the N.N.P.?  I would say that it is the result of a very intelligent and visionary group of talents who are each other’s best audience, much like the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters were before them.  Also, being outside of the salon system lets you focus whole heartedly on your art.  But it also means having no secondary market, far fewer sales, far lower prices (between $5,000 to $30,000), and much more conservative, decorative oriented collectors who shy away from strong expression and Űberkitsch effects.  So almost all of the N.N.P. have a day job, or other means of support, as well as large inventories.

The N.N.P. then, could quite correctly be called today’s avant garde, and the Museum of New New Painting in Toronto, today’s Salon des Refusés.  The N.N.P. continue the heroic tradition of High Modernism, which insists on art for art’s sake, and Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”.