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Artists Who Deal With Peoples’ Lives (Including Their Own)
As The Subject And/Or The Medium Of Their Work
Exhibition and Catalogue by Jeffrey Deitch
The Fine Arts Building, 105 Hudson St., NYC
November 29 - December 20, 1975
Lives Catalogue Introductory Essay
by Jeffrey Deitch
Nineteenth century French Academicians strove to rank artworks according to the importance and universality of their subject matter. History painting, with its direct allusions to the world of ideas, and its chronicling of great human events, was the most esteemed of the academic categories. Portraiture, with its much narrower focus, and genre painting, with its anecdotal interest, ranked much lower. Landscape painting, the most purely visual, was at the bottom in the status ratings.
Modernism brought about a reversal of this hierarchy, giving primary emphasis to the formal aspects of the work, and diminishing the importance of content that was not essential to formal understanding, The body of work in the "Lives" exhibition is rooted in Modernist thinking, but it represents an important departure from mainstream Modernist evolution in that "content" is again given primary importance and formal efforts are directed towards effective presentation of that content.
Even though there are some similarities, the new emphasis on content is hardly a return to nineteenth century academic esthetics. Ironically, most of the work in the "Lives" exhibition came about as an extension of the Formalism and Post-Formalism of the '60s. Even though it draws strongly from the heritage of Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus that existed in symbiosis with the more formal, side of Modernism, the basic esthetic foundation of most of this new work is in the Minimal, Post-Minimal, and Conceptual movements. The type of content on which much of the work in the show is built is derived in part from an analysis of the artwork and its context, continuing the Modernist tradition of esthetic self-reflexivity. As the next logical extension beyond Conceptual Art, the "Lives" artists are focusing their attention on the conceivers - the artists themselves and the art audience.
The esthetic progression from Conceptualism only partially explains the current wealth of interest in art that deals with peoples' lives. The political and social upheaval of the late '60s had enormous impact on the young art community, as it did on the society at large. The antiwar and social liberation movements severely questioned the isolated, art for art orientation of '60s Modernism and forced artists to address themselves to the relationship between art and socio-political behavior. There has been a great deal of discussion in young art circles about making work that can appeal to a non-artworld audience by dealing with material that is close to peoples' lives, and making reference to more than just the Modernist tradition. Artists like Dennis Oppenheim, Roger Welch, Hans Haacke, and the Guerilla Art Action Group attempt to be social activists by trying to carry their message into the general culture, or trying to point to social problems in their work.
But paralleling the retreat from '60s activism and the '70s introspection of American youth culture, many of the artists in the "Lives" exhibition are self-analytical. Quite a few contemporary artists have carried their self-investigation into a level of self-indulgence, but all of the "Lives" show artists have succeeded in abstracting this self-exploration, making it meaningful in a general art-problem context, and moving it away from the realm of the purely personal.
The esthetic progression from Formalism to the "Lives" exhibition deserves more explanation. Formalism had functioned as a closed system, requiring artists to work within a framework of set assumptions about the nature of the art object. One of these assumptions was that human subject matter was just excess baggage in the search for essential visual expression. Formalism's theoretical constraints were leading to a contraction of artistic potential. The Minimalist strain was in part an extension of Formalist thinking in its attempt to isolate the basic elements of visual communication. But rather than furthering the contraction, Minimalism actually expanded the arena of art activity. The questions "Is painting dead?" and "Where do we go from here?" sparked an investigation of the stages that preceded and followed the display of the finished art object.
A great deal of work in the late '60s focused on the physical and conceptual processes that are involved in the realization of an artwork. The physical fabrication of a work, and the materials from which it was made, were given importance equal to that of the finished object. The process artists set the stage for the Conceptualists, who investigate the thought structures that lay beneath the object and the art-making process. The body of work in the "Lives" show extends the thinking of the Conceptualists, investigating the areas that lie beneath the concept, that is, the conceivers -- the artists themselves and the art audience with their complex sets of psychological, social, economic, and intellectual motivations.
For the "Post-Conceptual" artists in the "Lives" exhibition, the most fertile area of art activity has become the investigation of the artist and his environment, and as an extension, the study of people in general in their confrontation with the creative decision-making process. The forces in peoples' lives that cause art to be created, and the questions about the relationship between art and life have always been of great importance to artists, but now they have a special meaning in terms of the esthetic progression beyond Formalism and the Formalist bias of the Minimal and Conceptual movements. The most interesting recent work refers not to the object itself, but to the forces which shape creative activity. As Dennis Oppenheim sings in the song that accompanies the spastic dance of his self-portrait marionette in the "Lives" show, "It ain't what you make, it's what makes you do it!"
Three artists in the exhibition rose to prominence in the late '50s and early '60s, yet they are still very much a part of the contemporary scene. Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, and Ray Johnson were important precursors of the material in the "Lives" exhibition, but their work fits in easily with that of the younger artists, It is interesting to examine their relationship to some of the other people in the show, and observe how their influence has been filtered through the intervening decade.
Beuys' work is continually baffling, yet extraordinarily powerful. Despite his posture as an educator, and his passionate political commitment, there is rarely a direct message in his work. The viewer always senses, however, that a strong effort is being made to transmit meaning. Beuys' use of arcane symbolism is perhaps best absorbed on a pre-cognitive level. His three Felt Suits in the exhibition are somehow endowed with his shamanistic charisma. They function as multiple stand-ins for his own mysterious presence. Their visual impact is strong and direct, but on the mental level, their power is much more subtle, creating uneasy images of desperation and political oppression.
Beuys is certainly an important figure for a number of artists in the show, but like the meaning of his work, his influence on other artists is difficult to directly trace. Vito Acconci, for instance, is interested in preconscious behavior and cathected symbolism, but his posture is private and hidden as opposed to Beuys' public activity. In his Life Histories of the North American Marsh Birds (Decoy), which uses a small, sealed-off room inside the "Lives" exhibition area, Acconci's voice speaks intimately to the listener as a kind of alter ego. Both the title and the room itself are decoys, luring the participant into a vague realm of mental torture. Acconci is like a hunter behind a camouflage, inducing paranoia since he can't be seen, even though his presence is felt. His language on the tape is all in the conditional mode, and as the listener becomes increasingly involved, the space itself becomes conditional, and its mooring to reality becomes loosened.
Andy Warhol's sexual posture, his use of the human readymade, his exploitation of cultural icons such as Jackie and Marilyn, and his integration of art and lifestyle have had enormous impact. His influence has been so diffused into the general culture, however, that at this point, it is difficult to pinpoint his importance for specific artists. An artist really can't respond to contemporary New York culture without also responding to Warhol.
Roger Welch would not seem to be influenced by Warhol, but his work relates to Warhol in a very interesting way. Both of them employ human readymades, but where Warhol collected behavioral mutants to join the meta-reality of his continuous performance, Welch uses normal human beings who reaffirm the meaning of their own lives through participation in his pieces. Warhol's people became objects, as Warhol himself became an object. Welch's Roger Woodward Niagara Falls Project combines a film of water rushing over Niagara Falls with a video interview of Roger Woodward, the only person to ever have gone over the falls by accident and survive. Woodward emphasizes that he is just a normal guy, even though he had this extraordinary experience. He discusses his love for his family, his admiration for the man who drowned trying to save him, and affirms his confidence in living. Yet the presentation is a bizarre reminder of how matter-of-factly human beings deal with disaster.
Welch's latest works are involved in the study of American sports heroes such as Muhammad Ali and O.J. Simpson. In contrast to Warhol's use of abstracted stock images of Jackie, Marilyn, Mao, etc., that are made into icon-like portraits, Welch intends to build a study room for each sports figure, equipped with video, film, audio, and study carrels. The viewers will be able to come away with their own impressions.
Along with Beuys and Warhol, Ray Johnson has been very successful in making his own life function as the medium of his art. His art-world communication network is among the most interesting conceptual sculptures. His sensibilities seem to be half-European and half-American, and it is interesting to observe his strong influence on Canadian artists. John Jack Baylin, a native of Vancouver who has long been a correspondent of Johnson's, is probably the most interesting to the younger correspondence artists. He first rose to fame as "Bum Bank," collecting thousands of ass images from all over the world. He then started the John Dowd Fan Club to expose the work of an unknown New York bartender, which Johnson changed to the John Dowd Fanny Club. His John Dowd Fanzine (fan magazine) became transformed into Fanzini, which is now his primary preoccupation.
Baylin's Treatise on Gorgeousness in the "Lives" exhibition looks at the connection between art and sexual-image building. The creation of a sexual persona or pseudo-persona is something that has recently been occupying a number of artists, such as Colette, Lynda Benglis, and Hannah Wilke. It is much more elaborate than body art in that it involves clothing, fetish, speech, media exploitation, and all the other elements involved in the creation of a public image in addition to the basics of body and gesture. Body art is something that only artists do, but image projection is something that everyone does. Like correspondence networks and the study of a near-death experience, it is one of the areas where art and life can meet.
The renewed interest in "human subject matter" should not be viewed as a nostalgic yearning for the realist painting of the past, or as a protest against abstraction. Even artists in the exhibition who are actively interested in figurative art, such as Scott Burton and Marc Miller, have arrived at their subject matter from abstracted, conceptual foundations. An artist like Jonathan Borofsky, who works on spontaneously diagramming his sub-conscious images, might seem to be taking his cues from Surrealism. But actually, he is extending the thinking of Sol LeWitt by probing the ground underneath Conceptualism. LeWitt presents the conceptual structure of his visual thinking, but Borofsky works on the pre-rational imagery that precedes actual thought.
Surrealism forged a liaison between art and science with its extensive use of Freudian theory, and a number of artists in the exhibition are continuing that type of interdisciplinary relationship. Terry Berkowitz's documents of her psychological experiments are of interest to both psychologists and artists. She could just as easily use her research for an academic paper as exhibit it in a gallery. Alan Sondheim is a philosopher, a mathematician, a musician, and even a little bit of a physicist, in addition to being an artist. His work makes a contribution to all of these fields. This sort of work would not be recognized as art outside of the art matrix, but it still would be appreciated for its creative achievement. Its relationship to the issue of the art context is much more complex that that of the Duchampian readymade. It demonstrates art's potential as a spawning ground for innovative thinking, and oversteps the more narrow notion of the artworld as a perceptual frame.
Several of the artists in the exhibition have made an effort to totally integrate their political and philosophic beliefs with their lifestyle and with their art. For the Guerilla Art Action Group, a commitment to radical social reform has become the foundation for all of their activity. Their work is both art and political activism. In this exhibition, they documented Jean Toche's efforts to retrieve his F.B.I. and other internal security files under the Freedom of Information Act. On Kawara, whose art is completely integrated with his philosophic stance, takes a pose of receding from the world, and in keeping with that, he declined to directly affirm of disaffirm his participation in the show. He did not submit any work, and left it up to the curator to decide how to include him.
It is interesting to study the derivation of the work in the "Lives" exhibition, but it is even more interesting to contemplate the direction that these artists will take in the near future, as this is very much a movement in progress. The "Lives" artists have already succeeded in transforming the formal advances of the late ‘60s and bringing the esthetic progress of Conceptualism closer to peoples' life experience, and perhaps they are building the apparatus to channel these artistic advances into the cultural mainstream.
Catalogue © 1975