What is Hot and What is Good?

Who are today’s Salon Stars – those several hundred artists whose works are regularly accepted for sale at the two, big auction houses? (As contrasted to an estimated half million artists in the United States alone.) In May, an article in “Art News” entitled “The 10 Most Expensive Living Artists” gives us a starting point, in that it identified the brightest of the Salon Stars at least in terms of price. Here are the results:

Highest reported price at public auction,
private or to a public institution (in millions):

Jasper Johns 17
Robert Rauschenberg 12
Brice Marden 10
Bruce Nauman 9.9
Lucien Freud 5.8
Jeff Koons 5.6
Cy Twombly 5.6
Gerhard Richter 5.4
Frank Stella 5
Richard Serra 4.5

Reported private sale when higher (in millions):

Jasper Johns 40
Cy Twombly 20
Gerhard Richter 10
Richard Serra 5

Others, just below the top ten (and just under $5 million) are Chuck Close, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenberg, Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha, and Agnes Martin in that order. Of course this list doesn’t tell us how many works each of these artists sell or the relationship of their primary and secondary markets, or many other important things, but it will, nevertheless, serve my purpose here.

The first thing to note is that all of the top artists already made their reputations in the 60’s, over forty years ago. (The sole exception is Jeff Koons who, stylistically, has to be counted as “Pop”.) Each can be said to be part of one of the main movements of the 60’s: Pop, Minimal and Conceptual. The only main, 60’s movement without a representative is Color Field. Unlike Color Field, all three represented movements consist primarily of illustrating ideas and projecting attitudes, rather than making a wholehearted, visual statement.

The second thing to note about the list is the dominance of Pop Art. The two top figures are both Pop. Johns and Rauschenberg have been 1 or 2 since the 70’s. First Rauschenberg was ahead and then, in the 80’s Johns became the market leader and he has held the lead ever since. Also several of the biggest Pop figures, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, are now dead but have attained highs of 17 million (25 million in a private sale) and 8 million respectively. But put next to the greatest artists of the previous generation, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Hans Hofmann, Rauschenberg and Johns seem pretty lame. They show a woeful lack of passion and invention, life and energy.

Johns is the most successful at what I call “faux painting”. Faux painting has the look of passionate struggle but is really weak and empty. It has only a patina of authenticity. But there is the occasional surprise and some of John’s pictures are better than others. An arty academicism is especially evident in his prints. Rauschenberg is more creative and ever so often really hits it with a cardboard or crumbled metal relief. As for the other Pop artists, I like Koons better than Warhol and most of the Pop Stars, especially in his metal and ceramic sculptures; he is also the most accomplished painter. Like Red Grooms, he makes Pop funny rather than rigidly ironic, which makes for an altogether more open and giving feeling. Tom Wesselman and the early Jim Dine are engaging painters and have done some fine works. Richard Estes is the best at photo-realism, which is a related genre.

Of the “10 Most Expensive”, Cy Twombly and Brice Marden are the clearest cases of “the emperors new clothes” side of contemporary art: extremes of the triumph of fashion over substance. Put next to Pollock’s, Twombly’s and Marden’s pictures seem stylized, stiff, narrow and simplistic.

Oddly enough though, Twombly’s early signature look: a continuous, repetitive scribble, was given a certain life by the French painter Georges Noelle back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was at the Basel Art Fair sometime in the middle 70’s and was surprised to see a really good Twombly. It drew me across the room. Only when I got close enough to read the label did I learn that it was actually by George Noelle who I had never heard of. Whoever had had the idea first, Noelle did it better. I had a similar experience with paintings by Willem de Kooning and Harold Shapinsky. With the exception of the late 40’s, de Kooning usually seemed to me aimless, slack and repetitive, an archetypal example of “faux painting”. Then, in the 90’s, Harold Shapinsky surfaced. Like Noelle he was a retiring, minor figure. Shapinsky did not have de Koonings ambition or productivity. Yet at one point in the late 40’s, their styles were virtually identical. The only difference was that Shapinsky’s pictures were better, more alive, like Noelle’s compared to Twombly’s. In neither case do I know which came first, but these two instances underline the point that it is genius, not style, which counts. No style is unredeemable. Only inspiration gives life to art. And you either have it or you don’t.

Brice Marden too, gives us a persistently simplistic, repetitive kind of art. Again, think of Pollock. Marden’s early work has a tough, uncompromising look but is “faux painting” just like Johns. As with Twombly’s, Marden’s recent painting has been compared to Chinese calligraphy. But for anyone who is familiar with the great “hands” of Chinese calligraphy like Mi Fu or Chu Yun-ming this comparison is laughable. Twombly and Marden achieve little “che” (life-energy), to use the term the Chinese themselves use to judge calligraphy.

Bruce Nauman, who also rates high on the banality scale, does have a certain feeling for small animal forms. Unfortunately it is not for these, but for his most fatuous, adolescent gestures that he is most honored. This is conceptual art at its most silly an banal. When one thinks of really great concepts – like relativity theory or those of great philosophers like Plato and Kant, most conceptual art is pretty thin fare.

The only realist who appears on the list of ten is Lucian Freud. I like some of his early portraits, which do have character, and, in at least one occasion in his later years, he was truly inspired by a unique model, and broke out of his familiar manner. But, by in large, his figure paintings seem stylized, listless and lifeless; very like the works of Phillip Pearlstein, but rougher.

None of today’s realists come close to Odd Nerdrum, the Norwegian “history painter”, who paints like and angel and evokes whole worlds. In recent years he has become less ambitious, and he has never again equaled his awesome show at the Thorpe Gallery in 1988, but he still leads the field in depth of feeling and profundity of pictorial thought. It is noteworthy that Nerdrum, like most modern realists, is very much an individual and not part of a movement or group although he has attracted followers.

The two other best realists of the past half-century are Horatio Torres, the Uruguayan painter who died in 1975 and Fairfield Porter who died the same year. These are at least comparable to the best realist of the early 20th century: Dali and Hopper. But there are other worthy figures too, like Albert York, Paul Georges, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Scott Prior, Steven Assel, George Nick, Lennet Anderson, Claudio Bravo, Early Diebenkorn, David Park, Graham Nickson to name a few. In my view, there are many better realists than our most popular Salon Star like Alex Katz, Eric Fischel, Wayne Thiebaud, John Currin, Jenny Saville et al. Balthus, who was cult figure for so much of the late 20th century, did his best work in the 1st half of the century and was mostly a minor figure thereafter. Our notions of realism too, are badly distorted, with minor figures creating the biggest stir.

The most enigmatic and illusive of the ten most expensive, is the German painter, Gerhardt Richter. He is one of Europe’s very best abstract painters and not a few of his pictures would be at home in a New New show. Also he has been able to make photorealism a personal and expressive idiom. He can take you to classical heights. He is a very impressive, occasional sculptor – again both as a realist and an abstractionist (the latter are very original). Richter is also capable of puerile gestures and banal, conceptual illustration, which undoubtedly are what endears him to the marketplace. His abstract paintings vary from the magnificent (e.g. the big triptych in the recent M.O.M.A. show) to the utterly dead (as in his recent gray series shown at Bluhm Helmen Gallery a few years back). In other words Richter, like so many of the Salon Stars, lacks focus and often loses touch with himself. Detectable is a self-conscious self image that makes much of Richter’s art seem stiff, dry, withholding and cold. I miss an overriding passion that sweeps all before it as we find it in Picasso or Pollock or Richter’s fellow German, Hans Hofmann. Still Richter does often offer real aesthetic substance.

I have already written an article on Frank Stella. Suffice to say here, I view him as our greatest sculptor at the moment. Up until the last decade or so, I saw Stella as an enormously energetic, ambitious, inventive artist, but one whose work lacked heart and seemed overcontrolled and theory or image driven. As a painter he has had his moments, but basically, compared to the best, like Pollock or Morris Louis, Stella’s work is almost as dead as Marden’s and Twombly’s. Since the 60’s though, he has turned more and more to sculpture with truly astonishing results.

No one today embodies the idea of heroic modernism more than Richard Serra. Unlike Stella, who is constantly changing, Serra has gotten better and better at doing the same thing. He has recently done some awesome pieces even if he does not have anything like Stella’s creativeness. But both Stella and Serra have reached greatness by using their Salon success to elevate their art. Something similar could be said of Joel Schapiro, de Kooning’s late monumental sculpture, Mark de Suvero and others. Perhaps this is easier to accomplish for sculptors.

Although they do not rank at the very top, many of the best Salon Stars stem from the Neo Expressionist movement of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The best of this group are: Julian Schnabel, Roberto Clemente, Jean-Michel Basquiat and more generally the Italian “Avantgardgia” (Sandro Chice, Enzo Cucchi, Mimo Palladino) and the Germans (R.A. Peck, Rheiner Fetting, Anselm Kiefer). Kiefer is the most popular but, to me, he is the most conventional and academic. Schnabel has shown real originality and has an expressive feeling for his materials. He has produced outstanding works in several different styles. Clemente has a beautiful touch and has produced some marvelous work especially in the 80’s. He is almost always good at watercolor. Basquiat can be great, especially at heads, but he often overloads his picture not knowing when to stop. He can draw with real feeling. This can also be said of Robert Longo, who is often associated with this group. The Neo Expressionists represent a return to visuality, physicality, and movement. They provide a refreshing moment in what has been overwhelmingly a conceptual period. The Neo Expressionists see painting as a heroic adventure just like Pollock. But again, they all lack the power and consistent focus to be counted with Pollock or Hofmann.

I want to say something more about “faux painting” since it, more than anything, stands in the way of seeing the best painting. Here are some painters who, in addition to those I have already mentioned above, I consider “faux”: Susan Rothenberg, Elizebeth Murry, Richard Diebenkorn (the Ocean Park Series and later), John Walker, Joan Mitchell and the list could go on and on. Their works have a dense, cloudy look of over worked oil paint (the “gritty” English School belongs here too). The pictures present themselves as “serious” but in a superficial, purely surface way. The occasional successes seem almost like accidents. There are other Salon Stars who have fresh feeling in their paintings, I am thinking especially of Peter Halley, Terry Winters, Jason Martin and David Reed. Again conceptual sclerosis keeps painters from breaking free.

One Salon Star who is especially puzzling to me is Phillip Guston. I saw his show of Abstract Expressionist pictures at the Guggenheim in the late 60’s. Seeing the pictures one after the other as you proceed down the Guggenheim ramp can be a killer. The artist has to have lots to say and Guston didn’t. The more you saw, the smaller he seemed. (The recent shows of Lichtenstein and Rosenquiat at the Guggenheim gave me the same sinking effect.) Then, in 1969, came Guston’s figurative style which was 10 years before its time and which had character and a whimsical goofiness, which I liked. But the pictures never finally deliver, they never become truly alive. Yet Guston continues to be a fascinating figure for me, as if I still have something to learn from him. Perhaps this is because two painters, whose work I love, have found inspiration in his work.

Conceptual art has been dominant since the 60’s. Of course all art, at its deepest level, is conceptual. But there is art in which the concept is a wholly visual and visceral one, and art in which the concept is primarily verbal. The object itself becomes less important. (Of course there are works which fall in between like those of Barnett Newman.) The latter, type of art has traditionally been called allegory. The idea is not embodied but “read off” as it were. Our contemporary version of allegory was invented by Marcel Duchamp and marketed to a large audience by Johns and Warhol. Instead of learning the new way of seeing offered by Pollock, Hofmann and their contemporaries, the collectors of the 60’s and 70’s turned to something verbally explainable, illustrational, fun and familiar. And they have been stuck there ever since.

A final point: photography, which, unlike painting, is an image before it is an object, is conceptual art par excellence and so has gained enormous visibility and prestige during the last half century. Strictly speaking the content of photography is inexpressible in words just like painting, but nevertheless, it is more abstract, illustrational, and conceptual as a form of expression. The artist is one step removed from the artwork so to speak, which here is not a disadvantage as it is with painting. In photography, Concept Art fulfills itself as a wonderful new medium and this is perhaps why so many of todays up and coming Salon Stars are photographers.