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Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s Diagram from the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Cubism and Modern Art, 1936.


Is knowledge of art history passé? Not if you want to be an artist. Here's why, from my latest Brooklyn Dispatch from the July/August issue of the Brooklyn Rail:

Anyone who knows me, or who might have followed my ramblings over the last several years now, would be aware that I have a great interest in the history of New York’s art community. This fascination started gradually (I’m a slow learner), when it dawned on me that to understand the mystery of art, you had to know the history of art. After 30 years on the scene, it’s obvious that despite what I’d been taught in art school—that it all depends on talent, dedication, and discipline—there are other factors that play important roles in deciding, who succeeds or fails in the art world. Chief among these are the relationships and connections among artists, galleries, critics, curators, collectors, and institutions, things as simple as where you live, who your friends are, where you went to school, or where you hang out. To get the big picture, one must be able to view these associations over a broad timeline. What might appear as chance happenings today may actually be the results of decisions or actions that took place in the 1950s, the 1980s, or last year. A thorough grasp of art history and its ancillary events is required, because you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Remarkably, and counterintuitively, by taking control of the past, at least as it’s currently understood and interpreted, you can also manipulate and direct the future. You don’t need to lie or fabricate; just accentuate and omit, but more on that later.

The following anecdotes are true. The names and situations have intentionally been made as vague as possible to protect the ignorant from embarrassment:

I met Mr. X the same way I meet a lot of young art aficionados, on my meanderings through the backstreets and off-the-beaten-path venues of Brooklyn. He’s a perfectly charming, highly educated young guy with local curatorial experience, and we’d contributed writings to some of the same art publications. During a conversation at the opening of a stuffy, scruffy DIY “gallery,” he lamented his current task, which was writing his master’s thesis, a sweeping, century-long history of contemporary art in New York. Despite the sweaty surroundings, ennui, and fatigue, my ears perked up. “What are you including about so-and-so?” I asked. He glanced back blankly. “Never heard of him,” he spouted. Now, this so-and-so is not some obscure character on the margins, but one of the three most influential players responsible for New York’s ascension to the art capital of the world. He’d spent time in Paris, supposedly met many of the modernist masters firsthand, written an influential book, and organized some of the most groundbreaking shows of the 1940s that established the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement as America’s original art form. He’d been a missionary for advanced art, formed an influential coterie, and introduced most of the artists who would become the New York School to each other. There’s no way any kind of valid understanding of local history could leave out this puzzle piece. Regardless, somehow in his seven or eight years of advanced study, and on the verge or receiving a master’s degree, the existence of so-and-so for Mr. X was a blank. I was dumbfounded.

Ms. Y is a well-respected painter with a cult-like following among many, and particularly among young, fashion-conscious female artists. Her work has been shown to great acclaim in New York and internationally, and has been acquired by major collectors, including some high-profile European tastemakers. I happened to pop in for a Sunday afternoon panel discussion coinciding with the artist’s latest show at her Lower East Side gallery. Admirably, this handsome show signaled a brave departure from Ms. Y’s marketable product and signature image. However, after a cursory viewing, it was obvious that the work, and even its installation design, related directly to an extremely influential art movement from the late ’60s-early ’70s that was associated with the beginnings of feminist art. During a brief Q&A, I asked Ms. Y how she saw her work’s relationship to the aforementioned movement. With wide-eyed naïveté and, I suspect, feigned ignorance, she practically boasted of her lack of awareness of this movement, and asked for names of artists associated with it. I was disappointed but not surprised, and I make no personal judgments on either Mr. X or Ms. Y, but it seems as if historical obliviousness is contagious among many of today’s young “it” artists, critics, curators, and dealers.

As a new critic for one of the most highly trafficked art websites in the world, Mr. Z has power. His reviews are fresh, he doesn’t shy away from the difficult, and his work is greedily anticipated by plenty of folks who spend inordinate amounts of time online. He’s done a good job of linking up with the new cadre of internet bloggers and web-crawlers, and he’s hip enough to lard his zippy lingo with just enough political correctness to entice intellectual lefties with its slacker nonchalance. I bumped into him at a downtown opening for a well-respected European painter of formalist abstraction. As is often the case when discussing advanced art, we were throwing out theoretical tests, sort of a “Desert Island Playlist” except with artists. When he asked “Who do you think is the most influential abstract painter for young artists these days?” I thought for a second and replied “Mr...........” His eyes glazed, “Is he East German?” No, in fact Mr........... lived on East 10th Street in the ’50s, was a proponent of the New York School, hobnobbed with the founders of Ab-Ex, and had one-man shows at the Guggenheim and the DIA Foundation. His estate is represented by one of the top two galleries in the city, and he’s venerated like a saint by many Williamsburg artists. Normally I’d be happy to fill in this guy with some basic info on Mr..........., but I had to reevaluate my whole impression of Mr. Z. As one of the supposed authoritative voices of his generation, someone to whom readers turned for informed opinions and aesthetic insight, I wondered whether this was simple ignorance or if it represents a pervasive attitude of deemphasizing the importance of art history, a notion that, as one major critic has labeled it, is a “macho hang-up.”

Henry Geldzahler, in his insightful essay from 1965 entitled “The Audience and the Critic” states, “The audience for art in our time is...a relatively small group as learned as the 18th century connoisseurs. The specialist’s knowledge today is not literary but formal. It is not mythology and poetry, the Greek and Latin humanist, but the morphology of the art of the past century, the history of forms and movements in modern art that is the necessary equipment for a full comprehension of the best of contemporary art.” To that I’d like to add a quote from one of my favorite art curmudgeons, Ad Reinhardt, from Art-As-Art: “The one subject of a hundred years of modern art is that awareness of art of itself, of art preoccupied with its own process and means, with its own identity and distinction, art concerned with its own unique statement, art conscious of its own evolution and history and destiny, toward its own freedom, its own dignity, its own essence, its own reason, its own morality, and its own conscience...The one question, the one principal, the one crisis in art of the 20th century centers on the uncompromising ‘purity’ of art, and in the consciousness that art comes from art only, not from anything else.” Dave Hickey, in a recent lecture at SVA, seemed to reinforce the above sentiments when he was asked what he looks for in a student: “Knowingness, because I don’t have time to explain everything”.

Contemporary art, like rust, never sleeps. To be a contributor to its ongoing saga one must be conscious of its precedents, trends, movements, philosophies, and personalities. Perhaps artists should be less self-conscious of being derivative and more accepting of familial resemblances. Every artist carries a personal art history in his or her head, a catalog that amounts to an artistic DNA, and like any family story, the richer and more profound this understanding, the greater the associations and inspiration one can derive from it.

Finally, the most widely accepted interpretation of the past will determine the direction of the future. Though this might sound mystical, as every propagandist or advertising executive knows, it’s usually true. You might think the battles of the past are over but you’d be wrong. These struggles are ongoing.

As an example, let’s make a brief comparison. In Irving Sandler’s groundbreaking tetralogy The Triumph of American Painting, The New York School, American Art of the 1960s, and Art of the Postmodern Era, the author lays out what has become the standard picture of contemporary art, at least for New York. Much of Sandler’s focus is on the male painters, many close personal friends; indeed, through his writings he’s helped define terms, movements, and tendencies that have been taught to generations of students, and over time have become the accepted account. I recently came into possession (a complimentary copy) of the dense, two-volume tome Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism by the team of Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. This study is illustrative because they reinterpret and reshape much of the standard canon, starting their version with Vienna and Freud, rather than Paris and Cézanne. They further expend much more ink arguing for the essential positions played by photography, female artists, and, not surprisingly for this bunch, so closely associated with October magazine (named for the month the Bolshevik Revolution took place), art production related to the international socialist (Russian?) movements. One need only glance at the recent Pictures Generation 1974-1984 exhibition at the Met, from a period when the influence of October was at its peak (and featuring many of the artists they’d championed), to witness their authority. Through their collective writings they’ve shepherded a generation of artists, especially female photographers with a deconstructive twist, while not so covertly trying to depose the New York School notion of heroic painting as chauvinistic, bourgeois, and passé. Echoes of this 1980s anti-painting jihad could still be felt reverberating down the halls of history when the artist Philip Smith, one of the original members of the 1978 Pictures exhibition, was “erased” from the Met’s show apparently for the sin of being too painterly to fit the strict photo-conceptual orthodoxy the curator had bought into.

Debates will doubtlessly continue over the relative importance of various artists and movements, and while some might cite the market as the ultimate arbiter of “value,” others proffer influence, recognition, innovation, intellectual rigor, or political appropriateness. What I’m calling for is a broader appreciation and study of all history. Artists can no longer slide by as idiot savants or simple-minded slackers who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast. Young critics cannot grasp the full implication of their generation’s accomplishments without the context of their antecedents. To penetrate beyond our current membrane of creative precedent will require a greater understanding of our tribal story. I don’t advocate the omission of any historical interpretation, but rather a study of history that would elucidate how and why the master narrative has been manipulated. Our individual backstories are like the Watts Towers, built out of the colorful bits and scraps we drag home every day: the firmer the foundations, the stronger the structure. Each of us in our own way is a chronicler in the history of “we.” Regardless of personal preference, in the end, it’ll be history that sorts it all out.