Two sides of the same coin

“The classic pursuits are diverse in their astonishments.” –Tad Friend, The New Yorker, Jan 23rd, 2006. Which takes me to Dave Hickey in Vanity Fair, March 2000? (paraphrasing): “[Donald] Judd and [Dan] Flavin, in their maturity, were no mere minimalists but rather classicists who, like Palladio, produced oeuvres of infinite variety from a limited set of maneuvers.” And finally to Gerhard Richter talking to Robb Storr in the MoMA retrospective catalogue interview (paraphrasing): “I went in the classical direction, Sigmar Polke went in the psychedelic direction.”

This division between the classic and the psychedelic is something that has occupied my thinking for the last six months. Richter’s choice of the word psychedelic is interesting; however, the psychedelic is really only an expression of the romantic in art. The proper line of consideration is drawn between classicism and romanticism.

Classicism gets a bad rap in contemporary American culture. It is seen as stiff and conservative while romanticism, I believe, tends to be viewed more favorably, emphasizing, as it does, a cultish devotion to youth and honesty and sincerity. (How very American!) However, what classicism represents as a tool in artistic practice is invaluable: the ability to do something over and over and over “in real time, like longboard surfing” and not get sick of it.

What Judd represents to me is a kind of culmination of modernity in painting and then a total reinvention, on personal terms, as to his own contribution to that tradition. His life was spent as a classicist, continually refining and expanding his program according to the rules he alone established. It’s an American way of getting your European culture and eating it too.

Writing in Art in America in September 1994, Ken Johnson wrote (paraphrasing): “Perhaps someday Judd will no longer be considered a minimalist but rather a great American eccentric.” The phrase here is interesting because eccentricity in art is falls on the side of the romantic. And I agree with Johnson. But I cite it here to suggest that the division between the classical and romanitc is a false one. They are intertwined traditions that all artists bounce between in the production of their work.

Think of Raphael, the inventor of the Grand Manner, and Leonardo, the freak who drew and dreamed of things but finished very little. Both of these artists sit at the center of Western pictorial tradition, interlocked, inspiring and confounding artists through history, each the very embodiment of the classical and romantic.

Although I have been called a pervert for suggesting so, Judd and Warhol are also interlocked.

The particulars surrounding the emergence of these two artists are almost completely unknown to me. I have never read Judd’s “Specific Objects” nor Micheal Freid’s “Art and Objecthood,” both written when I was a baby. But Warhol needs no introduction. My point is, these two artists are both reclusive eccentrics and big global capitalist classicists.

I don’t care that Judd hated Warhol (after all he hated everyone), or that Warhol made fun of Judd (but don’t forget there is a lot more humor in Judd’s work than people generally talk about). In fact it is the reality of this tension between these two artists that makes their connection all the more interesting, and, admittedly, perverse.

Imagine Judd with his puritanical rigor and Warhol with his silly decor, each artist barreling ahead stoking his own engine of creativity, “vision,” ego, and beauty, each one phoning in orders to sub-contractors, reading off lists of sizes, colors, and distribution points, each one scanning the terrain of contemporary art in the early 1980s and suspecting that he was considered a joke, each one spiraling down his own little rabbit hole.

It brings to mind Jerry Saltz (paraphrasing): “Every artist is an outsider artist. . . . This is how all artists become both essential and irrelevant.”

Tad Friend concludes musings on classicism (which are part of an essay on car chases in Los Angeles) with this: “Classic pursuits command attention in the end, because they give form to the city’s yearning for mastery. They embody freedom.”

So there you go. Freedom. And as we all know, that’s just another word for . . .

One response to “Two sides of the same coin”

  1. Missy says:

    I don’t know Judd’s work, and I only know Warhol because it’s not possible to not know him, being alive and all, but I don’t really know his work. But I know yours, and so as you talk about classicism vs. romanticism, I’m reminded of your series of western style ranch houses. They moved me because of how readable they were in terms of literarary romantic aims, and in typical academese, I reached for the one thing I knew I really understood and tried to use it to understand something that was flooring me. What I saw was that you took what I found shameful about the landscape that made me and you made its mundacity beautiful, which seems to me straight out of the Lyrical Ballads school of dealing with dismal modernity. But in that series I also see what you are saying about classisicm and repetition.

    But back to your column. I’m delighted by this vision of Judd and Warhol painting contemporarily. Like a dysfunctional Picasso and Braque, (I know, they were collaborators, so it’s not the same, but the erotics of creating at the same moment and towards the same intellectual ends, if not through the same means resonates here) I love when you explain that it is ” the reality of this tension between these two artists that makes their connection all the more interesting, and, admittedly, perverse.” If I had a wish for your columns here, I’d wish for more like this–mostly I won’t know who you are talking about, but I can look them up, and in the meantime, I can listen to HOW you’re talking about them.

    Congrats, all, on this cool blog. Looking forward to reading and commenting. Will there be any music reviews? mb